Right now we are having passionate arguments about the commercial funding of two opera companies in London, but it is nothing new as the capital witnessed an operatic rumpus centuries ago. In Handel’s London, the formation of the Opera of the Nobility, a rival opera company to Handel’s own outfit at the Royal Academy of Music, split available audiences and pushed the composer to write biblical oratorio in English to win over the opera crowd. Israel in Egypt had its first outing in 1739, and it was a failure: too serious, far too much chorus and where were the solos?  A hasty rewrite chopped up the first part, with its lengthy lamentation of the death of Joseph, and Handel added a few showy arias. The work remains heavy on choral writing –understandably, as the subject is about a people being led out of exile.

The Chorus of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
© Christopher Bowen

Written only two years apart, Israel in Egypt and Messiah are Handel’s only oratorios to use straight biblical texts, yet the works are very different. The few solos here are mostly accompanied by sparse continuo of two violins, baroque cello and harpsichord. Starting in Part 2, the focus is on the ten plagues sent by God to break Pharaoh’s people. Richard Egarr conducted the lively Scottish Chamber Orchestra from the harpsichord, but mostly he stepped back to carefully mould singers and players as the series of disasters wracked Egypt, gesticulating like a traffic policeman at times, bursting with infectious energy as he urged his forces onward.

We were plunged straight into the action as tenor James Gilchrist in full evangelist mode announced the new Pharaoh, the chorus responding with growing anger as angular dissonance became revulsion when the river turned to blood. In mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston’s splendid aria, jumpy rhythms were frogs, but even as her perfect articulation of "blotches and blains" were full of disgust, her lovey rich timbre rounded the piece off with stunning ornamentation. The chorus took over for the remainder of the part, put through their paces as violins buzzed like flies, cellos jumped with lice, and the brass section of two trumpets and three trombones joined hard-hammered Baroque timpani cooking up a storm of hailstones and flood. Egarr punched the air as the musical blows fell.

Choral director Gregory Batsleer prepared his 60 singers well for a work of 21 choruses, half of which are double. The choral sound was generally well balanced, the voices blending together and entries secure. Contrasts were well made between forceful "Thus spake the word..", the anger over the brutal murder of the first-borns and the quieter choruses with darkness, so black it "might be felt". Their sustained energy and liveliness was impressive, particularly in the double chorus of the crossing of the Red Sea, the orchestra hurrying the heroes through before the waters came back drowning the Egyptians in pursuit.

Egarr kept tempos brisk, refusing to wallow or gloat even when the Egyptians "were glad" at the departure of the Israelites. If Part 2 is all action, Part 3 is about the joyful celebration of deliverance as a series of triumphant choruses proclaim that "the Lord shall love for ever and ever". A luxury team of soloists provided brief but rather wonderful highlights: sopranos Mary Bevan and Rowan Pierce in a stunningly radiant duet, and baritones Peter Harvey and Ashley Riches slugging it out like rutting stags in a humorous battle in "The Lord is a man of war". But the evening belonged to the choir and players, with Pierce as Miriam providing final soprano gloss to the closing chorus.

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