Deborah is one of Handel’s earlier (1733) English oratorios, based like many on an Old Testament story, one of the endless accounts of the Israelites taking on an oppressive foe. In this case, the enemy leader meets his fate not in battle, but in having his head nailed to the floor by one the nice Israelite girls. This, of course, happens off stage and we only hear about it, but in any case this was an unstaged performance at the Halle Handel Festival.

Rebecca Bottone and Capella Cracoviensis © Stiftung Händel-Haus
Rebecca Bottone and Capella Cracoviensis
© Stiftung Händel-Haus

A largely Czech production with the Choir and Orchestra of Capella Cracoviensis was led by Jan Tomasz Adamus. The venue is not known for its razor-sharp acoustics, and it was sometimes hard to make a fair assessment of the playing.  In the overture, the strings sounded somewhat muddy, but overall a nice bright sound was achieved, and the deployment of three horns and three trumpets certainly lifted the “grand choruses” in which they appeared. The Choir was particularly good with an excellent soprano line, and surprisingly clear English diction. The same could not unfortunately be said for all the soloists.

This did not apply to Deborah, sung by English sopraono Rebecca Bottone, who has a very pleasing and pure voice, with crystalline high notes and accurate coloratura. Her low notes are not as strong as her upper range, but overall she turned in a very engaging, and engaged, performance. It is not entirely clear just what Deborah’s actual role is in the action apart from telling everyone else what to do, but there she is, the heroine. Jael on the other hand, a young Israelite housewife, is the Hammermeister who dispenses with the enemy leader. She was sung by Moroccan soprano Hasnaa Bennani who also has a pleasing voice, if not quite as penetrating as Bottone’s, but with good flexibility and not quite perfect English pronunciation.  Her voice bloomed as the work progressed however, with nice rounded tone in the lower-lying “Of the pleasure my soul is possessing” interspersed by shafts of higher brightness. Her triumphant “Tyrant, now no more” seemed to display the full glowing force of her instrument.

Xavier Sabata and Capella Cracoviensis © Stiftung Händel-Haus
Xavier Sabata and Capella Cracoviensis
© Stiftung Händel-Haus

Barak, the actual Israelite commander, seems to be a reluctant sort of a hero, with possibly Freudian issues with his father Abinoam. The former role was taken by countertenor Xavier Sabata, possibly more familiar on the opera stage than in an oratorio setting. This repertoire seems to suit him well, with warm but penetrating tone, sounding quite burnished in some of his arias. “How lovely is the blooming fair” was delicately sung, and he dealt well with the passage work in “All danger disdaining”. His English was comprehensible, unlike that of Abinoam, bass Jacek Osimkowski, who also sang the roles of Israelite Priest and Baalite Priest. His voice was of the rather thick-throated kind which, while well-projected and authoritative, did not lend itself to nimble coloratura and suffered from an occasionally wide vibrato. Sisera, the nail recipient, was sung by another male alto, Michał Czerniawski, whose English was even less comprehensible; he sang with pleasant tone and some good high notes, but lacked flexibility. Two of the Israelite Woman’s arias were axed, and the remaining one (“Our fears are now”) was sung nicely by Bennani.

While singing in more or less standard oratorio style, the cast generally managed to keep up the dramatic tension, and there were some nice interactions among the principals, such as the confrontation between Sisera and Deborah. Deborah and Barak’s duet “Smiling freedom” was something of a highlight also. The performance was very warmly received at its conclusion.