Review / Handel at full, glorious tilt

Music / “Esther” by George Frederick Handel. At Canberra Theatre Centre, October 28. Reviewed by ROB KENNEDY

“Esther”. Photo by Hou Leong.

SHOULD an Oratorio written 300 years ago be performed today? If you love well-crafted productions and superbly sung performances, the answer is yes. 

“Esther”. Photo by Hou Leong.

The intimate atmosphere that a small orchestra creates can be one of the most pleasing experiences in the musical world, especially for this reviewer as I was sitting right in front of the orchestra pit.

Handel in the Theatre (HITT), directed by Tobias Cole, who also plays Ahasuerus, the King of Persia, led the group in an exceptional performance throughout the night.

Cole begins by introducing the main players to the audience, which were Janet Todd in the role of Esther, Sally-Anne Russell as Mordecai and David Greco playing Harman the Prime Minister, along with the HITT Dramatic Chorus and the HITT Balcony Chorus and conductor Brett Weymark leading the orchestra.

The light and playful music that opens the show, which the oboes voice led brilliantly throughout, belies the dramatic and horrifying events that might soon take place. The first section of the Oratorio was full of joy and inviting music and song, with an extended solo by Cole that was handled with finesse.

The powerhouse performance from Greco was heard throughout the theatre, especially when he declared that no Jewish person shall be spared as retaliation for an insult from Mordecai. This was a powerful scene, and to hear words like that today can set you back on your heels.

While some of the scenes and songs seemed overly long and repetitive, the nature of this profound story was offset against short and cutting actions and songs that quickly followed the more extended sections, creating a striking contrast.

A chamber drama, like this, may not fit the expectations of a regular opera-goer and they may find some soloists lacking power and presence, but in context of the intimate experience that this was meant to create, this personal encounter offers greater depth in this ensemble arrangement.

After the interval, things livened up, and that intimate experience gave way to a full-on opera setting. The balcony choir behind the audience came in, trumpets that were also in the balcony but to the right of the stage and timpani introduced Handel’s rousing coronation anthem, ”Zadok the Priest”. With full chorus and all players together, they produced an electric rendition of this famous tune.

Esther, played by Janet Todd was perhaps the most poignantly acted and sung role of the night. However, Cole as the King of Persia, who hammed it up at times, gave an excellent performance.

When Handel’s multi-melody tunes hit full flight, the sound was overwhelming in its diversity and resonance. When the Israelites, the HITT Dramatic Chorus, performed “Ye sons of Jacob”, towards the end, it built to a robust dynamic conclusion, which filled the theatre with a glorious sound that ended the night with a grand unison of all players.


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