Handel’s Israel in Egypt
The Tudor Consort with The Chiesa Ensemble (comprising 25 members of the NZSO, with Douglas Mews harpsichord), directed by Michael Stewart
Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
Saturday 6 September 2014
Israel in Egypt sets out to recount the Old Testament story of Israel’s final period in Egypt under a Pharaoh that withdrew all previous privileges and inflicted on the Israelites a physical bondage of the harshest kind. Handel set an entirely biblical libretto which dramatically depicts the Ten Plagues that Israel’s God visited on the Egyptians, the captives’ escape towards the Red Sea, the Egyptian pursuit with murderous intent, and the parting of the waters to provide safe passage for the Israelites. Unlike many other oratorios of the period, the chorus is here the central protagonist , with recitatives and arias sung by choristers, rather than by separate vocal soloists.
The opening orchestral prelude was beautifully balanced and sympathetic as were the first recitative and chorus, all of which set the brooding background of Israel’s grief and despair at their hopeless situation under the new Pharaoh. Michael Stewart judged the reverberant acoustic of St. Paul’s perfectly and used broad tempi that allowed the fugal entries and lines of both orchestra and chorus to be cleanly heard, and the story clearly heard.
As the narrative unfolds, Handel uses the libretto to paint a succession of dramatic contrasts, offsetting the sombre elements of the tale against the more violent visitations of the plagues. Chorus and orchestra gave a wonderfully vigorous depiction of episodes such as the clouds of locusts, hailstorms mingled with fire, Jehovah’s ruthless elimination of the Egyptian firstborn and the final fate of Israel’s pursuers as the waters of the Red Sea engulfed them.
Interspersed were evocative contrasts like the “thick darkness over the land, even darkness which might be felt”, and the lighthearted pastoral pipes and shepherds’ voices of slaves released. Handel’s masterful orchestration and choral writing was given its fullest value by both singers and orchestra, with the impeccable technical and musical skill that one has come to expect from the Tudor Consort and NZSO players.
Yet I felt a deep sense of frustration with the performance because much of that talent and musicianship was, in the final analysis, defeated by the reverberant acoustic of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The broad tempo sections worked well, but the high speed intricacies and fugal lines of the fast tempi became an overwhelming blur of sound, where there was no chance of verbal clarity. For me, the magic
of Handel’s oratorios is his stunning realization of the story – where he lifts an already absorbing literary drama onto quite another plane with his astonishing musical paintbrush. The music is created specifically to tell the story, and if that story cannot be heard, the point of the work is lost.
It saddened me that the obvious talent and commitment of the musicians could not be properly appreciated in the enormous space. Given the size of the audience, I suspect they might have fitted into Old St. Paul’s, where I think there would have been a greater chance of acoustic success.
Unfortunately I was not able to stay for Part Two of the work, but the format is very similar to Part One, and I doubt my impressions would have been very different.