We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, May 11, 2024


 Curtain Call at Opera Lafayette's Presentation
"From Saint-Cyr to Cannons: Moreau and Handel's Esther"

In two days we have gone from comedy to oratorio and changed location from El Museo del Barrio to the modern sanctuary of St. Peter's Church (in Manhattan, not Rome). With their customary scholarship, Opera Lafayette presented two versions of the biblical Story of Esther. This heathen reviewer was obliged to read about it, to understand the text of the two oratorios which were presented on the same program. If you do not know the story, we will share it with you, directly from Wikipedia.

"Esther,[a] originally Hadassah, is the eponymous heroine of the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible. According to the biblical narrative, which is set in the Achaemenid Empire, the Persian king Ahasuerus falls in love with Esther and marries her.[1] His grand vizier Haman is offended by Esther's cousin and guardian Mordecai because of his refusal to bow before him; bowing in front of another person was a prominent gesture of respect in Persian society, but deemed unacceptable by Mordecai, who believes that a Jew should only express submissiveness to God. Consequently, Haman plots to have all of Persia's Jews killed, and eventually convinces Ahasuerus to permit him to do so. However, Esther foils the plan by revealing and decrying Haman's plans to Ahasuerus, who then has Haman executed and grants permission to the Jews to take up arms against their enemies;[2] Esther is hailed for her courage and for working to save the Jewish nation from eradication."

How appropriate we find this story, whether fact or, more likely, fiction--a story of a woman who overcomes her fear and acts with courage and fortitude, risking her life to save her people. The Story of Esther has inspired many beautiful paintings and some mighty fine music; Opera Lafayette brought us two exemplars. The 1689 work by Jean-Baptiste Moreau (libretto by the famous French playwright Jean Racine) was presented by Madame de Maintenon, second wife of Louis XIV, at her chateau/spiritual retreat at St. Cyr where she instituted a school for young women of the lesser nobility; they received moral instruction as well as theatrical.

Extracts of the works were conducted from the harpsichord by Justin Taylor with contributions toward the musical direction by singer Jonathan Woody who gave a dramatically scary performance as the evil Haman, one of the world's earliest would-be racial cleansers. The Persian King Ahasuerus was portrayed by Jesse Darden. The female roles were taken by soprano Paulina Francisco (reviewed earlier this week in the comic work La Fête de Thalie), soprano Elisse Albian, and alto Kristen Dubenion-Smith. Jacob Perry sang the tenor parts. 

It was barely two decades later that Handel created his own setting of the story to text by Samuel Humphreys, which was sung in English. Let credit be given to the singers for clarity of diction as well as uniformly beautiful vocalism and musicianship. It was interesting to witness how compositional style evolved within that brief period.

The Moreau work, sung in fine French, had many interesting moments. With "O mortelles alarmes!" we appreciated the melding of two voices and in the second iteration of that phrase, a moving cello solo by Serafin Smigelskiy, who also carried the stirring "Entracte". Later in "Que le peuple est heureux", we loved the expressive vocal trio. The nature of that particular section seemed written to glorify King Louis in subtle allegorical fashion. Ms. Dubenion-Smith lent her fine mezzo instrument to some authoritative declamation that filled the sanctuary. 

There was a lively and rousing "Marche" followed by another vocal trio and the sopranos took turns in praising God. But the best part was the cheerful "Que son nom soit béni" which was delivered with overlapping voices, bringing this half of the evening to a stunning conclusion.

After a brief pause, we entered a more sophisticated world in which Händel made generous use of the decoration of the vocal line which we so admire in his operas. We also noted the addition of instruments providing a more textured sound. Mr. Woody made a detestable Haman, just as called for. (Love the voice, hate the rôle!) In "Praise the Lord with cheerful noise" there were some bravura flourishes from Mr. Taylor's harpsichord, and some fine coloratura singing from Ms.Francisco.

A somber sextet in "Tears assist me" was marked by a prominent descending motif. When Ahashuerus is awakened by the courageous Esther, Mr. Darden allowed the king a moment of anger that softens when he recognizes his beloved wife. It was a powerful moment. The dialogue between the two singers that follows was lovely and moving.  Mr. Woody had a fine moment as Haman pleads for his life and mourns his fallen state.

The final number "The Lord our enemy has slain" is an exultant canon for the six voices and Händel's command of the musical language is impressive, ending the work on a high note, so to speak.

It was a worthwhile evening, even for a heathen. "Si, non e vero e ben trovato"! How stimulating it was to hear the two works together. As is everything done by Opera Lafayette, it was original in creation and flawless in execution. Mr. Taylor is a true artist at the harpsichord, the singers were superb, and the orchestra magnificent. A special shout out to Concertmaster Jacob Ashworth for his artistry on the violin.

As is our custom, we invited someone unfamiliar with the world of classical voice. He enjoyed the performance without any prior knowledge, thus proving our belief that opera and classical singing can be appreciated on its own merits. The unamplified human voice goes straight to the heart.

© meche kroop

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