‘Israel in Egypt’ review: full-blooded Handel

Oregon Repertory Singers, orchestra and soloists deliver a performance that matches the great baroque oratorio's epic scale

by BRUCE BROWNE

It’s a plague, it’s a pestilence, it’s a flood, a conflagration. Is it a Camus play, a new video game or first run science fiction flick? No, it’s the dramatic unfolding of the Old Testament of the Bible and the 290-year-old oratorio Israel in Egypt.

For George Frideric Handel, the late 1730s were a period of upheaval. He suffered and recovered from a neurological event while living in London on the up side of his forties and down side of his opera successes. But Handel dug in and evolved. He stepped back from Italian opera and, by the end of the decade, he was composing and mounting his new favorite musical genre, the oratorio, which is like opera without elaborate costumes, props, theatrical character interaction or secular subject matter. (If you’ve seen Handel’s later Messiah, you’ve seen an oratorio.) Israel in Egypt, one of his first enduring oratorios, was premiered in 1739.

Oregon Repertory Singers performed Handel’s ‘Israel in Egypt’ at Portland’s First United Methodist Church. Photo: Allison Silverberg.

In the Oregon Repertory Singers‘ performance at First United Methodist Church last weekend, music director Dr. Ethan Sperry presented Israel in Egypt, as it is most often, in the two-act version created by Handel after a less than enthusiastic response to his three-act premiere. Thankfully, Handel retained the exquisitely virtuosic single and double choruses and several lovely arias presented by director Sperry, choir, orchestra and soloists.

The tenor and alto soloists for this performance, well known to Portland audiences, have impressive national reputations. Tenor David Vanderwal and also Angela Niederloh were strong and steely in their arias. The alto aria “Their land brought forth frogs” is notable for its hopping rhythms in the orchestra, imitated in the voice. Ms. Niederloh, who resides and teaches locally, has a rich low register perfectly suited for the “real” alto register for which Handel composed this piece. Mr. Vanderwal, a Portland native now living near and working in New York City, has really come into his own vocally; it’s a classy, glossy true tenor sound with agility to match. The lack of soloist biographies in the program was a glaring oversight.

Angela Niederloh

Mixing professional soloists with amateurs can be tricky. While the duet between Lisa Riffel and Laurel Alyn-Forest, “The Lord is my strength and my song” was successful, other solos were less impressive.

The first half of Israel (Exodus) presents arguably one of the most dramatic and powerful musical drama of any oratorio ever written. The single and double choruses enumerate all the manner of horrific events visited upon the Egyptians for having held the Jews in bondage. Handel brings forth locusts, lice, flies, darkness, pestilence, fire and hailstone (simultaneously), blotches and blains (yeah, had to look up that one) — trumping up these events with vivid word painting. The flies, for example, are portrayed vigorously in the strings of the orchestra by rapid 32nd notes. The “darkness” is palpable through a very slow tempo and the ebon of instrumental voicing and choral singing. Very gloomy indeed. The smiting of the children (“He smote all the firstborn of Egypt”) was abundantly clear in the chopping sounds of the orchestra and choir.

Handel

Let it not be said that Handel was unsanguine, in both senses of the word, about his word settings. For one who was not a native English speaker, Handel spake well enough to paint with words, realizing in sound the onomatopoetic values of “smite,” “pestilence,” and “flieszzz.” There are a few oddities, like putting a relatively weak word, “the,” on a downbeat. But taken as a whole, it’s quite stunning what the composer does with words that were not natively his own. And even more stunning is that he was often fitting those words into previously composed music (his own and others) in a plagiaristic practice common at a time long before copyright laws existed.

Handel was respectfully true to the Old Testament’s dramatic portrayal of the Israelites’ escape from bondage. This respect for London’s Jewish community extended to his other oratorios, notably Saul and Judas Maccabeus. “Handel’s oratorios were among the rare works of art that portrayed Jews in a favorable light,” writes distinguished choral director and scholar of Jewish choral music Joshua Jacobson (Zamir Chorale of Boston program notes, 2015).

The second half of the oratorio (Moses’ Song) is not always Handel at his best. The almost exclusively double choruses can sound cumbersome and bombastic in a modern setting. Handel’s first performances might have had a few dozen singers and orchestra of period instruments, but within 30 years of his death his works, including Messiah, were being produced by very large choruses in London, a testimony to the appeal of his large works to the audiences and performers. For the most part, director Sperry handled this well, but it is a challenge with the large body of singers and a modern orchestra, even one as responsive as this.

This orchestra was the best ORS has assembled in recent memory. Spot on in more than just the notes, they followed Sperry and the choir almost perfectly, a few missteps not distracting from the overall sensitive performance.

Ethan Sperry conducted Oregon Repertory Singers.

The 100-ish ORS singers filled the church’s vast acoustical space in the most formidable way possible. Each part could be heard equally; the tenor and bass thrust of sound filled the hall as appropriate, and — bravo! — the alto sound from top to bottom was fulsome and handsome. Sopranos were clear and flute-like, never succumbing to over-singing or self-indulgence.

Then there were the tempos. There are two kinds of tempi in a musical performance: the tempo of each piece, and, the “tempo” between pieces which breathes life into the overall dramatic continuity. Dead time in a concert is … deadly. All of Sperry’s tempi were well thought out and convincing. Carefully plotted use of the technique of segue, or attacca, by the conductor can subtly influence focus of the audience — and performers. While director Sperry used this device often in the second half, tempo in the first half could have benefited from a few more attaccas.

Three interlocutors who together used the first ten minutes of the concert for several announcements did not do much to artistically sanctify the space for a work such as this. Naturally there have to be brief reminders about cell phones, safety, and other absolute necessities. But how much talking – by anyone – does an audience want to hear at the outset of a concert of beautiful music? Robert Shaw said: “If it needs to be said, put it in the program notes.” Otherwise let the music speak for itself.

G. F. Handel would write 19 more oratorios after Israel in Egypt, including Judas Maccabeus, Messiah, Jeptha and The Triumph of Time and Truth two years before his death. His influence on this dramatic choral genre paved the way for later works by Haydn (The Seasons) and Mendelssohn (Elijah).

We call these works masterpieces – the best works of the composer or the times. The opportunity to perform them or to experience them live can be enriching. They are a huge undertaking, but audiences do turn out for these works, and new light is shone on an old master, familiar to many only through Messiah. Oregon Repertory Singers is to be commended for their overall investment in bringing this choral/orchestral jewel to Portland.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. 

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