If the standard achieved by this production of Handel’s first oratorio, Esther is anything to go by, then Tobias Cole’s ambitions for his fledgling baroque opera company, Handel in the Theatre, may well prove achievable. Cole has harnessed impressive resources, including some very fine voices, to achieve a cohesive and entertaining account of this esoteric work.
Originally composed by Handel as a masque in 1718, and then heavily revised into a full oratorio in 1732, Esther tells the story of an orphan, Esther (Janet Todd) who is selected by the King of Persia (Tobias Cole) to become his wife, unaware of her Jewish heritage.
On the advice of his Prime Minister, Haman (David Greco) the King has embarked on a plan to exterminate the Jews. When Esther hears of this from Mordecai (Sally-Anne Russell) she risks certain death by entering the King’s private chambers, unannounced, to plead with him to abandon his plan.
Baroque operas are generally quite static. The long heavily ornamented and repetitive vocal solos can become testing for contemporary audiences. Aware of this, Cole added some innovative touches to embellish his production. The protagonists, Mordecai and Haman, were introduced to the audience at the beginning of the opera with a masque-style interlude.
Elsewhere he incorporated choreographed movement for his vocal ensemble to heighten the drama and add visual interest. He also included a second vocal ensemble, which he positioned, together with trumpeters, in the balconies surrounding the audience, creating a thrilling sonic tour de force for the stirring Zadoc the Priest, which commenced the second act.
The professionalism of the four leading characters with their fine singing, excellent diction and firm grasp of the stylised acting style, provided a firm anchor for the production. Janet Todd was an appealing Esther, acting with conviction, and singing her complex solos and duets with confidence and authority.
The warm mezzo-soprano of Sally-Anne Russell’s Mordecai, together with David Greco’s sonorous baritone for his glowering Haman, contrasting strikingly with Tobias Cole’s counter-tenor as the King, provided a fascinating aural palette for their various characterisations.
Keren Dalzell, Alison Richardson and Charles Hudson each contributed vocal highlights, while Marcel Cole provided a beautifully sustained elegant presence as the King’s attendant.
Commanding the musical resources, Brett Weymark achieved an excellent balance between singers and orchestra, drawing superb sound from the orchestra and disciplined singing from both ensembles to embellish the excellence of his principal singers.
The attractive setting and costumes, designed by Imogen Keen and realised by Cate Clelland, together with Cynthia Jolley-Rogers accomplished lighting design, provided an eye-pleasing environment for a production which has set a significantly high benchmark for this emerging, highly specialised , opera company.
The Playhouse – Canberra Theatre Centre, London Circuit, Canberra
Performances: 28 and 29 October 2017
Image: Handel in the Theatre’s production of Esther – photo by Hou Leong
Review: Bill Stephens OAM