Arts / Heard is the word when it comes to Handel

Sally-Anne Russell in the role of Mordecai… “He could be considered ‘evil-ish’ by some,” says Russell. Photo by Hou Leong

“THE word is heard” – remember that phrase, you read it first here.

It’s the catch-cry of Tobias Cole’s ambitious Canberra company Handel in the Theatre, which is bringing the words and music of a great composer to life on stage, in English.

Now Cole is embarking on a full production of Handel’s quasi-opera, “Esther”, which has probably never before been performed as a staged opera since the composer’s plans fell foul of the Bishop of London’s ban on staged biblical stories.

When “Esther” surfaced as an oratorio in 1732, the celebrity castrato Senesino played the king in plain clothes and made such a mess of the English language one observer said: “It might as well have been Hebrew”.

That won’t happen at The Playhouse, mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell assures “CityNews” because director Cole has impressed upon them that the principle of “the word is heard” must be viewed by all singers as no less than the Holy Writ.

Russell has been cast in the intriguing “pants role” of the political agitator, Mordecai, and she couldn’t be happier. Pant roles – women playing men – are a common joke in opera, but it is unknown in oratorio, where theatrical verisimilitude is absent.

But with a cast of seasoned operatic singers, an orchestra conducted by Brett Weymark, selected Canberra choristers and a team of designers and technical whizkids, Cole is changing all that.

At the heart of the show is the word. Russell recently attended a weekend workshop at which Cole stressed that the telling of the story was essential.

“Toby took us back to the basics, getting the inflection of every word, enjoying all the textures, the colours and using all the vowels,” she says.

Bloodthirsty and revengeful in the biblical version, the tale was refined by Handel into a story of moral and personal triumph, as the beautiful Queen Esther admits to her husband, the King of Persia, that she is a Jew, thereby achieving a guarantee of religious freedom for her people. Esther has since been seen as the saint for marginalised communities.

Esther’s story is the basis of the uproarious Jewish festival Purim, the “feast of lots”, when devout Jews are not just expected but instructed to indulge in wine and wassail.

Russell suddenly recalls how she saw Purim celebrations in the streets of East St Kilda and I recalled a Purim party in Bondi Junction with belly-dancers on stage.

Handel’s libretto doesn’t call for belly dancers and is a slightly sanitised version. But it’s mostly there in Handel and in the Bible – the king as a fairly passive participant, the wicked courtier Haman plotting against the Jews, the beautiful and righteous queen, and her Machiavellian uncle Mordecai.

What a role that is – the pants role to die for.

“Mordecai could be considered ‘evil-ish’ by some,” says Russell, preferring to view him as a loving uncle and carer to Esther but as well, a savvy politician plotting his way to a positive outcome for his people. “Underhanded in a political way, Mordecai adores Esther but has manipulative power over her,” she says.

Handel politely passes over what Esther and Mordecai do to their former enemies, preferring to end on a triumphal note with a walloping choral finale “The Lord Our Enemy has Slain.”

While Russell is well aware that many Handel music tragics will be coming from interstate for this rare performance, she applauds Cole’s decision to hire professionals like herself, soprano Janet Todd as Esther, baritone David Greco as Haman who have broad backgrounds in opera, concert performance and recording.

Cole is mindful of the need for accessibility, so has modernised a few words, so that Asia becomes Persia and “propitious” becomes “kindly”. He also emulates that smart 18th century businessman Handel, by throwing in the anthem, “Zadok the Priest”.

But it won’t be the beauty of the voices alone that will create the sense of “rapture” Cole wants. Above all, in the coming performance of “Esther”, will be the text – the word will be heard.

Handel’s “Esther”, The Playhouse, October 28 at 7.30pm and October 29 at 2pm. Bookings to or 6275 2700.


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