Sestina and Irish Baroque Orchestra at Christ Church Cathedral Dublin on 6 April 2019

While Handel is probably best-known for his oratorios, most people could name only one or two of them, and Esther (which pre-dates Messiah by over twenty years) would be new to most. Four years ago, the IBO and former Opera Theatre Company put together a performance of Handel’s first ever oratorio, ‘The Triumph of Time and Enlightenment’ in Italian, and tonight’s concert echoes that event, this time with Handel’s first English oratorio.

Based more on a play by Jean Racine than the biblical account, Esther is a thoughtful work that gradually builds in texture and intensity. Drawing on the standard bible narrative, of exiled Jews threatened by nasty Persians, through separate, scattered accounts in the first act, this leads to the central scene between Persian King Assuerus (Jorge Navarro Colorado) and his—Jewish—queen-to-be Esther (Anna Devin) in the second act, before the expansive and triumphant finale.

The drama opens with baritone Aaron O’Hare (as chief minister Haman), in full pantomime-villain mode, ordering the massacre of the insubordinate Israelites. Clearly enjoying the theatricality of the role, O’Hare’s well-grounded voice lends an arresting edge to the drama. Other bit parts (First Israelite, Boy, Priest) alternate with choruses, and are each very well sung and characterised by chorus members Kenneth Reid (tenor), Charlotte Trepess (soprano), and Sarah Richmond (alto), respectively. Trepass in particular impresses with her rich, brilliant tone.

The second act brings Devin and Colorado into the story, with Colorado somewhat confusingly singing the opposing roles of Mordechai and Assuerus. His smooth lyrical sound blends in well and delivers the words with satisfying diction, though the voice itself strangely lacks the dramatic presence that each role demands. Anna Devin, on the other hand, produces a superb performance of the title role, her voice richly coloured and charismatic, with a keen sense for the unfolding drama. We’re left wishing that Handel had written more music for her. In this work, Handel leaves some of his best material to the closing scene. Devin sings the virtuoso aria ‘Flattering tongue, no more I hear thee’ with operatic fury, before the scale of the work opens out even further with the chorus’ expansive finale.

Underpinning everything is the stylish playing of the Irish Baroque Orchestra under Peter Whelan. With its richly varied orchestral colours, including harp and extensive brass and woodwind, this work is a gift to the ensemble, which embraces this detailed sound-world. Standing in a single row behind the players, the voices of Sestina are occasionally lost to the orchestra, but they contribute to the rhetorical flow of the narrative with well-disciplined singing, and form a powerful presence in the concluding movement. Esther, a vivid and fascinating work, is given a compelling performance here. Apparently not performed in Dublin for nearly a century, hopefully Irish audiences won’t have to wait so long for its return.

Handel: Esther (libretto by John Arbuthnot, after Jean Racine)
Sestina and Irish Baroque Orchestra, directed by Peter Whelan
Anna Devin (soprano), Jorge Navarro Colorado (tenor)