One of the missions of the London Handel Festival is to shed light on the lesser known works of the great composer, and this year his early oratorio Deborah was one of the highlighted works. With a fine lineup of Baroque specialists including countertenor Robin Blaze and rising soprano Katherine Watson, led from the harpsichord by the Music Director Laurence Cummings, the performance was as good as one could wish for, although one could not help feeling that the work did not have the dramatic or emotional depth of his later masterpieces in the genre such as Theodora. Still, it was rewarding to experience this rarely performed work live.

Laurence Cummings © Anton Sckl
Laurence Cummings
© Anton Sckl

Deborah was Handel’s second oratorio for London (after Esther) and was composed in 1733 when he hadn’t yet given up producing operas – in the same season, his opera Orlando was performed. The story of Deborah is taken from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament and tells of how the Israelites after their Exodus from Egypt are again being oppressed, this time by the Canaanites. Without a military leader, the prophetess Deborah rouses her people and calling on God, leads them to victory.

In its extensive use of the chorus (as both the Israelites and the Canaanites), Deborah can be seen as a precursor to his Israel in Egypt, composed six years later. It is well known that Handel recycled a lot of his earlier works in this oratorio, including the Coronation Anthems, which may explain the occasional lack of musical coherence. Yet there is some beautiful original music too, and one can already hear the emergence of his oratorio style, which is quite distinct from his operatic style.

Some of the best arias and duets are written for the role of Barak, the young military leader chosen by Deborah, which was originally sung by the celebrated castrato Senesino. His virtuosic Act II aria “In the battle, fame pursuing” with organ and flute obligato was stylishly sung by Robin Blaze with bravura ornamentation in the da capo. Some of the arias seemed to lie a little low for Blaze’s range, but he sang throughout with beautiful control and care. Mezzo-soprano Lynda Lee showed dramatic presence as the prophetess with her warm and expressive voice. She particularly excelled in her Act I aria “Choir of Angels, all around thee” as well as in her duets with Barak. The bright-voiced Katherine Watson, who impressed me last year in Glyndebourne’s Hippolyte et Aricie, played a double role of the heroic Jael and the Israelite Woman. She sang both roles stylishly and elegantly and her voice carried well although her top notes tended to become a bit shrill. Sweet-voiced countertenor Owen Willetts was brilliant as Sisera, the pagan leader – ironically, he got to sing from the pulpit! Completing the cast, Norwegian bass Njål Sparbo brought out paternal love as Abinoam, Barak’s father.

It was certainly a tour de force and committed performance from all the soloists as well as the ever-energetic London Handel Orchestra and the 18-strong London Handel Singers. The chorus had their work cut out; in addition to the grand choral numbers by the Chorus of Israelites which opens and closes each act, in Act II they have to sing as the Baal priests as well. They sung with energy and discipline, although at times they sounded a little stretched. The orchestra, directed by the indefatigable Laurence Cummings (his sensitive continuo playing was also a joy), infused a lot of character into the often pictorial score and apart from a few ensemble glitches, they maintained intensity until the end. The trumpets and horns playing from either side of the gallery added to the spatial effect.

Although Deborah may lack the musical integrity or emotional depth of Handel’s later dramatic oratorios such as Saul, Samson or Theodora, this performance made a strong case for it, and viewed in the context of Handel’s whole oeuvre, one could appreciate that it was an important transitional work for him.