Friday, December 15, 2017

Handel Among the Brutes

Joseph recognized by his brothers, 1863 painting by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Last night in Herbst Theatre, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale presented the San Francisco performance of George Frideric Handel’s rarely performed HWV 59 oratorio, the three-act Joseph and his Brethren. The Philharmonia Chorale was prepared by Director Bruce Lamott, who also provided a highly informative (and occasionally witty) pre-concert talk. The full ensemble was conducted by Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan.

While the much more familiar Messiah oratorio (HWV 56) has a libretto consisting entirely of texts from both the Old Testament and the New Testament, the libretto for HWV 59, written by the Reverend James Miller, is based on a rich dramatis personæ, so rich that three of last night’s vocal soloists sang multiple roles. The title role was sung by mezzo Diana Moore, while two of the brothers, Simeon and Judah, were sung by tenor Nicholas Phan. Only two other brothers are included in Miller’s narrative, Reuben (sung by baritone Philip Cutlip, who, ironically, also sang the role of Pharaoh) and Benjamin (sung by soprano Gabrielle Haigh). The other singer taking two roles was mezzo Abigail Levis, singing both the high priest Potiphera and Phanor, Pharaoh’s “Chief Butler.” Soprano Sherezade Panthaki sang Asenath, who would eventually become Joseph’s wife.

It is a bit ironic that the HWV 56 was compiled by a lay person, Charles Jennens, while there is not a word of Scripture in the text prepared by the Anglican vicar Miller. Nevertheless, this should serve to remind us that the Book of Genesis, taken its entirety, is a text rife with brutality, going all the way back to the harshest possible punishment for “original sin” and proceeding all the way up to just about every aspect of the sons of the Patriarch Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, thus leading to his descendants being known as the “children of Israel.” Family life under Jacob was far from blissful.

Joseph was his first son by Leah, whom he loved but could not marry until first having married her older sister Rachel. Between these two women and their respective handmaidens, Jacob had twelve sons (the origins of the twelve tribes of Israel). However, it was clear that he favored Joseph; and those favors went to Joseph’s head. Indeed, Joseph was so unbearable that his brothers left him for dead in a deep hole in the middle of the desert and then reported back to their father than he had been killed by a wild animal. Jospeh was then captured by Egyptians and became a slave to Pharaoh, ending up in prison for “bad behavior.” However, while in prison, he interpreted one of Pharaoh’s nightmares, saying it predicted that seven years of prosperity would be followed by seven years of famine. He advised Pharaoh to put half of the crop yield during the first seven years into storage to be used to sustain the famine.

Joseph’s advice paid off; and he was rewarded with freedom, a high political position, and an Egyptian bride, daughter of the high priest Potiphera. The first act of HWV 59 follows Joseph from his imprisonment to his wedding. The second act involves Joseph’s brothers coming to Egypt for assistance in sustaining the famine and the devious ways in which Joseph conceals his identity while aiding them. The final act involves revelation, but only after several gestures of cruelty, including threatening Benjamin with death for the crime of theft. All is resolved by the final chorus with a celebration of happiness that we know from the Book of Exodus will not endure.

Last night’s performance lasted for about three hours and fifteen minutes. HWV 59 is distinguished by the fact that all of the music is original, rather than including borrowings from earlier works. However, original does not necessarily imply stimulating; and, because Miller’s libretto tries to gloss over the many underlying acts of brutality in the narrative, the drama tends to muddle along with little to compel or sustain the attention of the listener. In his pre-concert talk Lamott went as far as to advise his audience to enjoy the music and not try to follow the libretto text.

Yes, the music enjoyed many high spirited moments (also glossing over any suggestion of brutality); and McGegan’s conducting was consistently in tune with those high spirits. Furthermore, there was much enjoy in to vocal work, including Moore’s studied use of body language to reinforce the words she was singing. (She also deserves recognition for deftly negotiating the words “Blest vicissitude,” one of the best examples of how little Miller seems to have known about the singing voice!)

Most stunning, however, were the virtuoso passages that Panthaki had to negotiate, all of which she handled with thoroughly engaging dexterity. Phan never really tried to distinguish his two characters but merged them both into a single persona of desperate urgency. Cutlip had a wonderful baritone voice, leaving many wishing that he had been given more to sing. Both Levis and Haigh, on the other hand, were on the weaker side, although Haigh clearly tried to bring Benjamin’s personality to her singing.

There is an old Japanese joke about there being two kinds of fools. The first is the man who has never climbed Fuji. The second is the man who has climbed Fuji twice. Last night was a bit like an ascent of Fuji, and once was definitely enough!

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