David Vanderwal

‘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.

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