Handel’s Esther is generally held to be his first English oratorio. An early version sans choir was produced at Cannons in 1718 for the small forces available there, and in 1732, to forestall other London companies from performing some version(s) of it, Handel reworked it with grand choruses from the coronation of George II. It included performances by the celebrated opera singers Anna Strada del Po, Senesino, Francesca Bertolli and Antonio Montagna, apparently all sitting around looking a bit awkward in their day clothes, with no props or scenery. It was sufficiently successful, however, that it was followed up with the same line-up in Deborah the following year, which was also performed in Halle this week.

La Risonanza and the Capella Cracoviensis Choir © Stiftung Händel-Haus
La Risonanza and the Capella Cracoviensis Choir
© Stiftung Händel-Haus

The Choir of Capella Cracoviensis was also shared this week between Deborah and Esther, and a very good thing too. It is remarkable equally for its tight discipline, soaring soprano line, and comprehensible English diction, doing equally well in the grand choruses and in the quieter choral movements. Otherwise, the performers were quite different. Fabio Bonizzoni conducted with the orchestra La Risonanza, a well known Baroque troupe, using Handel-sized forces. Their playing was controlled but spirited, making the most of the colours Handel provided by way of oboes, flutes, recorders, horns and trumpets, the latter of course with timpani in the choruses.  Oboe solos abound, and mention should be made of principal oboist Marta Blawat, whose intricate playing was noticeable throughout. The flutes added interest to Ahasueras’s air “O beauteous Queen”. Organist Iason Marmaras also provided some confident bass solos, as Harbonah and an officer.

The earlier and later scores do contain the same basic material, but there are some choices that can be made. In this performance, there was a reversion to 1718 with the exclusion of “No more disconsolate I’ll mourn” in favour of “Praise the Lord with cheerful noise”, while the harp solo with was replaced by the organ.

The principals were varied, but some did their best to provide dramatic tension and interaction. The name role was sung by well-known Italian soprano Raffaella Milanesi, whose well-projected voice has a rather rich, dark timbre while maintaining purity across its range; her English diction was adequate for the work. She also displayed dramatic flair, particularly in the air “Flatt’ring tongue”, her furious denouncement of Haman, with an amazing blazing entry on the da capo.  The role of Israelite woman was mostly sung by Stefanie True, displaying her very clear and straight-toned soprano, using vibrato only for colouring notes at the end of long lines. Other airs for this part were sung by a soprano from the Choir, also with great clarity and silvery tone.

Mordecai and Ahasuerus were both slightly disappointing. The former was sung by contralto Benedetto Mazzucato in rather muffled tone, with heavy vibrato, unclear English and not much dramatic flair. Similarly the latter role was taken by countertenor Antonio Giovannini, whose reedy voice was practically inaudible most of the time, although occasionally some pretty high notes could be heard. For some reason he was chosen to sing all the solo lines in the final chorus, “The lord our enemy is slain”;  it is true he was more audible here, due largely to the very light orchestral scoring (just the basso continuo). Bass Thomas E. Bauer sang Haman with conviction, and did his best to inject dramatic flair into the goings-on; “Pluck root and branch” was appropriately powerful and aggressive, sung with clear, uncluttered and resonant voice.

Once again, the audience responded with huge enthusiasm, which arguably seemed somewhat over the top. But then again, this seems to be the Halle way.