A Master Storyteller Adapts an Undervalued Handel Oratorio

20/10/2017

Handel, Israel in Egypt: Erica Schuller, Molly Netter (sopranos), Daniel Moody (countertenor), Ross Hauck (tenor), Jeffrey Strauss (baritone), Apollo’s Singers (choir), Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (conductor), Avon Lake United Church of Christ, Avon Lake, OH. 15.10.2017. (MSJ)

HandelIsrael in Egypt (adaptation by Jeannette Sorrell)

The modern concept of a finished piece is remote from how the composer George Frideric Handel worked. He composed (and arranged) for specific performances and performers. When the occasion for a revival emerged, it was a new production, with different solutions. Thus, particularly in some of his large oratorios, we are left with a trail of versions and options. In the case of Israel in Egypt, these issues are complicated by its sheer unwieldy length, whichever version is used. Performing everything that Handel left would stand as a very flawed masterpiece.

Jeannette Sorrell, the founder and music director of Apollo’s Fire, is a masterful musical storyteller. In preparing the score of Israel in Egypt for performance, she decided to adapt it for practical presentation to a modern audience by editing it down to conventional concert length and emphasizing the overall dramatic flow. For recording purposes, one might want to have the full extant text(s), but there is no disputing that Sorrell’s adaptation gives the work a coherent, compelling dramatic arc, brought off brilliantly by her singers and players. I can only think that Handel, a practical man of the theater, would wholeheartedly approve.

In this adaptation, Sorrell showed the wide range of the composer’s mastery not by cutting many choruses, but by trimming repetitive and discursive passages within sections. This editing allowed room for the inclusion of the opening Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph, grave and beautiful music often otherwise omitted. In the second part, Exodus, she cut four choruses, including the most significant “And Israel saw,” the original closing of the act. But with that deletion, Sorrell was able to end the first half of the concert with a cliffhanger, by closing with the lines about Israel’s enemies being drowned in the Red Sea, forcing the dramatic resolution and celebration into the third part.

The concert found the singers and instrumentalists in fine form, not merely performing the notes, however stylish, but by going beyond technique to really listen and interact with each other. Handel got a bad rap for many years by being subjected to bloated, sleepy interpretations. Here, the life and dramatic meaning were foremost, and it was a thrilling reminder of Handel’s greatness. Bach gets all the adoration for his intellectual explorations, but I have come to treasure Handel’s astonishing expressivity, while still working within the narrow confines of the popular taste of his time. Comparatively, Bach lived in an ivory tower, while Handel was slugging it out in the commercial theaters of London. This ensemble demonstrated how Handel was able to keep fighting his way to the top, even when the fads of taste took sharp turns in new directions.

The five soloists first appeared to open “The righteous shall be had,” but each had ample opportunities to shine, despite the dominant choral focus. Tenor Ross Hauck was pliant and expressive in his solos, drolly setting up the start of the plague of frogs. In the following countertenor aria “Their land brought forth frogs,” Daniel Moody sang brilliantly with drama and wit. Jeffrey Strauss was richly engaged and engaging in the baritone arias, first carrying along the storytelling, but pausing to savor the joy in the later pages.

While the crystalline voice of Erica Schuller and the glowing warmth of Molly Netter were featured in separate soprano arias, the highlight of the entire performance in their duet, “The Lord is my strength and my song.” Their adorable blend carried an emotional charge that sent a wave of sniffles across the audience. Again, though their technique was perfect, even greater was was the palpable sense of the two singers supporting each other. As a friend said, “It’s like Jung’s concept of triangulation: the interaction of two people causes a new, different emotion or idea to appear, something that wasn’t brought into being by either one of those people alone.”

Only two sections were omitted from the third-act Moses’ Song: the duet “The Lord is a man of war” (good riddance) and the unintentionally humorous “And with the blast of Thy nostrils.” The remaining portions were trimmed to maintain the expressive arc, something that Sorrell’s flexible, constantly adjusting direction emphasized.

The instrumental solos throughout were brilliant, particularly Steve Marquardt’s natural trumpet and Debra Nagy’s baroque oboe, which echoed the blend and transcendence of the sopranos’ duet. The whole ensemble brought the music movingly to life, even though at one point, the stormy passing of a strong cold front outside the church forced them to pause and re-tune. In the choral roles, Apollo’s Singers were just as vivid—as always with this ensemble—working to make the whole greater than the sum of its already impressive parts.

Sorrell’s adaptation and conducting could open up a new era of appreciation for this great, undervalued oratorio. Let’s hope in due course a recording appears to help earn this neglected masterpiece a place in the pantheon.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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