Handel’s Esther

Esther [1732 version]

Esther – Katie Thomas
Israelite Woman – Helen Swift
Mordecai – Kate Symonds-Joy
Ahasuerns – David Bates
Haman – Callum Thorpe

The Esterhazy Singers

The Little Baroque Orchestra
Esther Jones

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 12 April, 2008
Venue: St James's, Piccadilly, London

Youth seemed to predominate in this performance of the revised and expanded version of Handel’s oratorio “Esther”. None of the soloists was over 30, and, although I could not see them all, the orchestral players seemed to be in their twenties. The Little Baroque Company produced some fine playing, creating a very pleasing sound. The two oboists also turned their hands (and their lips) to wooden recorders.

This was a performance that gave pleasure rather than perfection, for there were some errors, including one chorus which had to be started again, a fact which I record rather than condemn. (I recall seeing and hearing Joan Sutherland stopping in an aria in “La Sonnambula” at Covent Garden and beginning a second time.) The experience of hearing lovely music sung and played enthusiastically overcame the few glitches.

“Esther” is not one of the most frequently heard of Handel’s works, and one rarely comes across its arias sung out of context. in his revision Handel added numerous pieces from elsewhere, even including his Coronation Anthem “My heart is inditing” complete. Apart from the chorus, which consisted of about 36 people (ratio of about three women to two men), there were the five main soloists, with choristers taking a few tiny roles.

In the role of Esther, who is little heard in Act One, Katie Thomas seemed to have a small voice, sweet though. Her Act Three aria ‘Flatt’ring tongue’ enabled her to open her sound as Esther rebuffs Haman (‘Bloody wretch, no more I fear thee”), and one realised that the upper half of the voice had some power, whereas the lower range was not well projected and needs to be freed. A more gleaming tone came from Helen Swift, who seemed very nervous, which probably caused intonational problems. Nevertheless, I found her tonal quality most mellifluous. The two sopranos did well, with their voices contrasting but not jarring, in the delightful duet ‘I’ll proclaim the wond’rous story’.

As Mordecai, Esther’s guardian, Kate Symonds-Joy produced a dark contralto tone with strong lower notes, which in itself was agreeable. One does not often hear such a voice these days. She has generally clear enunciation, so it was a pity that she resorted to the unmusical hard-rolled ‘r’. In quick passages, where she could not spend time on creating that noise, she sang much more smoothly and just as clearly.

I was impressed by the two men. Countertenor David Bates brought long spans of breath and clarity of vocal ornamentation in the long divisions in his arias, of which, gratifyingly, he had four. His sureness and security did waver momentarily in one piece, but he gave a stylish display of Handel-singing. Less favoured regarding number of arias was Callum Thorpe, yet he had enough to show a well placed and focused bass-baritone, with its warmth of tone and fine quality coupled with an ease of delivery.

These young performers did a good job, be they the soloists, The Esterhazy Singers or The Little baroque Company. The printed programme contained the text, which one does not always find even from the big venues, so it seems churlish to regret a lack of information about the singers. This was a highly commendable effort.

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