Tuesday 28 May 2024

Telling a story: Solomon's Knot in stylishly vivid form for the Canon's version of Handel's Esther

Esther, mosaic from The Dormition Church on Mount Zion in Jerusalem
Esther, mosaic from The Dormition Church on Mount Zion in Jerusalem

Handel: Esther (Canons version); Solomon's Knot; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed: 27 May 2024

Solomon's Knot on vibrant and vivid form in a dramatic account of the earliest version of Handel's first oratorio

Handel's Esther has an important place in music history as the first of his English oratorios, though it wasn't intended as such. Written as a small-scale masque at Canons around 1718 for the Duke of Chandos, that original version probably used just a handful of singers, though the work was revised in 1720 for a larger scale performance also at Canons. Handel probably never intended the piece to have any further life, by the 1720s he had turned his back on large-scale private patronage and was enmeshed in creating Italian opera. But in the early 1730s, a version of the work was staged in pirate performances. It was very successful. Handel's response when faced with this sort of copyright/piracy issue was to create a new improved version of the work in question. He did that for Esther, expanding it using some of the Coronation Anthems and re-writing for his Italian singers. The work's success led to further oratorios. 

Frustratingly, not that much is known about the work's early history, Handel's period working for the Duke of Chandos is frustratingly lacking in detail. We don't even have a secure edition of that very first version, but the earliest manuscript (dating from 1720) still gives us a work that is smaller in scale, poised between masque and oratorio, yet respectful of English theatrical traditions (the main male characters played by tenors and basses), thus almost by accident pointing the way.

On Monday 27 May 2024 at Wigmore Hall, Solomon's Knot, artistic director Jonathan Sells, turned their attention to Handel's Esther and gave a performance of that early Canons version, featuring a vocal ensemble of ten singers including Zoe Brookshaw as Esther, Joseph Doody as Mordecai, Xavier Hetherington as Ahasuerus and Alex Ashworth as Haman, plus an instrumental ensemble of 14 (strings, woodwind and continuo) plus horns and trumpet as necessary. The result was a very full stage indeed.

Performing from memory, the singers gave the work a rather effective element of semi-staging. Esther is not strictly a dramatic work; structured in six scenes it has static choruses and discontinuities that reflect the work's masque origins. The English text is not the most felicitous that Handel set, so for instance at the end of Act Two the first Israelite sings 'With inward joy his visage glows/He to the Queen's apartment goes'. But in its very compactness the work is effective.

Handel was also clearly engaged with his material and it has a number of imaginative touches. The end of Act One features a scene for the Priest of the Israelites (here James Hall), where his recitative and aria is interrupted by and completed by a chorus, so we have recitative, chorus, aria, repeat of chorus, to striking effect. Handel's use of repeated choruses to link scenes structurally is notable here. 

Regarding the characters, Handel's sympathies are not always as we would expect. The role of Esther is relatively compact, probably because it was written for a boy soprano. Esther opens with Haman vituperating against the Israelites, but the work's final scene, the dramatic confrontation between Esther, Ahasuerus and Haman features no aria for Ahasuerus, but one for Esther where she vituperates against Haman. In this scene, it is Haman who draws Handel's sympathy with a moving accompagnato and powerful final aria, complete with oboe obbligato. 

From the work go, Solomon's Knot's performance was vibrant and vivid, each note of the overture meaning something and the small instrumental forces bringing out the strong colours of the work. The singers brought a nice differentiation between the solo sections and the choruses, in these latter lining up to address the audience directly in performances of strength and directness. In some, you could hear Handel's imaginative structures developing, showing the way for his large-scale oratorio choruses.

Alex Ashworth made a strong, rounded Haman, bringing strength and vivid accents to his opening aria, along with great attention to words, and then in his last scene giving a moving account of his accompagnato allied to a powerful final aria complete with a strong performance from oboist Daniel Lanthier. Zoe Brookshaw was a rather poised Esther, no shrinking violet but concentrated and contained, her opening aria stylish yet her final one denying Haman mercy was vivid with a nice firmness to her line. In her duet with Xavier Hetherington's Ahasuerus, Brookshaw gave a sense of Esther's purity, contrasting nicely with Hetherington's more vividly operatic approach, something that was notable throughout his performance. His first aria, complete with some fabulous playing from a pair of bassoons (Inge Maria Klaucke and Sally Holman) was vibrant yet conveyed real upright moral character, whilst his second aria moved into more operatic bravura. Joseph Doody brought similar operatic swagger to his aria as Mordecai, ensuring that all the key principals were nicely differentiated. 

The Priest of the Israelites was split between James Hall and Kate Symonds-Joy. Hall gave a vivid account of his accompanied recitative in Act One, followed by an expressive aria. Symonds-Joy duetted superbly with a pair of horns ( Kathryn Zevenbergen and Kate Goldsmith) to create a highly dramatic opening to Act Three.  Thomas Herford was stylish with a lovely sense of line as he duetted with Lanthier's oboe for the First Israelite's aria in Act One. This was followed by an aria for an Israelite boy where Clare Lloyd-Griffiths was accompanied by solo harp (Aileen Henry) and flute (Eva Caballero) to striking effect, Lloyd-Griffiths' almost trenchant performance contrasting with the instrumental colours.

The choruses were all strong, and with a chorus like that which closed Act Two, it was lovely to have the sense of clarity allied to power that using just ten singers brought. The final chorus, effectively a complete scene with solos from Kate Symonds-Joy (duetting with Fruzsi Hara's trumpet this time), Joseph Doody, Zoe Brookshaw, Jonathan Sells and Alex Ashworth, was large scale and vibrant, and amazingly loud. A terrific end to the evening, and the way these choruses were delivered with the singers looking at us intently brought out that sense of the importance of text and message that would be a strong feature of oratorio.

For all its weaknesses, Esther is wonderfully compact and in this performance we were transported by the vibrantly vivid performances and the sense that the entire ensemble was committed to telling the same story.

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