Israel in Egypt – Sacred Oratorio in three parts to a libretto by Charles Jennens taken from the King James Bible, HWV54 [sung in English]
Amanda Forsythe & Sonya Headlam (sopranos), Cody Bowers (countertenor), Jacob Perry (tenor) & Edward Vogel (baritone)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 26 October, 2023
Venue: Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
This performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt, in a version created by Jeannette Sorrell, was not only historically and musically interesting, but its timing – though scheduled more than a year ago – proved unexpectedly relevant in light of the Israel-Hamas conflict currently unfolding, making the Biblical story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt – with its themes of oppression and yearning for freedom – especially powerful and moving.
Originally composed in three acts and lasting over three hours, the oratorio was a colossal flop at its 1739 premiere at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, London. In an artistic compromise that was eventually successful, Handel set about revising the work, adding a few arias and dropping the first act. Nowadays the original Act One, ‘Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph’, is usually omitted, and most published editions have only two acts, with ‘Exodus’ labeled as Part One and ‘Moses’s Song’ as Part Two. To make the story move more quickly but still stay close to Handel’s original conception, Sorrell has restored most of the original Act One and makes cuts in all three parts. The result is a tightly paced, forcefully dramatic 85-minute work, brilliantly realized by Sorrell who secured a sonorous performance from the chorus of 51 (divided into two antiphonal groups), the orchestra of about 40, and vocal soloists.
Unlike Messiah, Handel’s other English-language oratorio that takes its text from Biblical passages, Israel in Egypt relies almost entirely on choral forces and allots very little to the soloists. Apollo’s Singers were magnificent and seductive, investing vitality and drama, most impressive in ’The sons of Israel do mourn’, the opening lamentation, and in ‘Sing ye to the Lord’, the glorious hymn of praise that is a joyfully triumphant conclusion.
Of the soloists, Amanda Forsythe’s limpid soprano was its brightest in ‘Thou didst blow with the wind’ and Edward Vogel revealed an attractively unpretentious baritone in ‘To God our strength, sing loud and clear’. Countertenor Cody Bowers demonstrated fervor and perfectly shaped tone, and Jacob Perry dispatched his tenor lines with panache. Sonya Headlam’s rich soprano blended well with Forsythe’s in their ravishing duet, ‘The Lord is my strength and my song’ and glowed in her solo passages.
The Philharmonic players were in excellent form, whether swift tempos or bringing the music touchingly to life, and solos were all outstanding, some even breathtaking, notably Robert Botti’s expressive oboe and Christopher Martin’s sparkling trumpet as they echoed the sopranos’ ‘The Lord is my strength’.
Hearing this adapted rendition of Israel in Egypt was a compelling experience, one that made the listener keen to hear a more complete version of Handel’s boldly jubilant score.