Handel Israel in Egypt The Sixteen/Symphony of Harmony and Invention/Christophers. Freemasons' Hall, Covent Garden Festival, 1 June 2000 (PGW)
A high point of the Covent Garden Festival is the annual opportunity to visit the extraordinary, ornate Grand Temple at Freemasons' Hall, for an evening of baroque choral music in the round. There have been Handel oratorios given by Harry Christophers and his musicians, and last year Robert King. A high standard can be counted upon for these exciting dates in the Early Music calendar. But, more controversially, these events boast also a visual accompaniment, of which more later.
For Israel in Egypt, the soloists emerged from the Sixteen (swelled to some thirty singers) and returned to take their places in the choruses, which are the work's chief glory. There were no famous names; was that why, uncommonly, the Temple was nowhere near full? Each of them discharged their duties with full professional expertise.
The acoustics are splendid and Harry Christophers maintains a tight rein on the proceedings, inspiring singers and players to give their all, with superb precision of attack. He places small platforms for delivery of arias and duets each end of the orchestra, which is arranged lengthwise along the centre of the Temple. The singers were carefully attentive to the need not to have their backs facing one section of the audience too long before turning the other way.
Most striking this time was the duet between two basses The Lord is a Man of War, with Simon Birchall and Robert Evans facing each other across the orchestra. There were delightful arias taken by sopranos Carys Lane and Carolyn Sampson, but it was not clear who was who. The period orchestra included two flutes, bassoon, two trumpets and two trombones, and there were a harpsichord and two small organs (Laurence Cummings, Stephen Devine & Paul Nicholson) for the accompaniments.
The first act, with all the plagues portrayed graphically by Handel, was thrilling. The second part (composed first, apparently) is a bit of a farrago, with some reminders of what we had already been told to reinforce the general celebration, and it finished with one of the fine rousing choruses of which Handel is an unrivalled master.
Audience and critics (including those representing S&H) were divided about this year's visual component, which usually attracts a bad press, and often deservedly so, as does the Turner Prize at the Tate each time. In 1999 we were placed in the midst of revolving coloured searchlights, which scanned the auditorium, distractingly and with no redeeming features. It was more equivocal this year.
No words were supplied, a prospect deplorable before the performance began, less so when as one came to realise that, by dint of repetition, Handel himself ensured that most of the words came through and, indeed, with such emphasis that you began to memorise them. A few key sentences did appear as travelling surtitles at the bottom of the screen. On this were displayed a number of images, mostly two of them at a time, superimposed and slightly out of focus, perhaps to indicate that they were meant to make a subliminal impression, and not to take the forefront of attention. I took it that the intention was not for them to invite continual attentive viewing.
Handel's music is so direct and (relatively) simple that it could cope with these visual extras which, for me, did not seriously detract from concentrating upon the music. The images, as with Handel's text, were repetitive, taken from a fairly small store, and deployed as a counterpoint to the scenes being described, rather than being intended as direct illustration. We saw reeds swaying in the wind, refugees under supervision by Nazis suffering enforced labour and in pathetic processions with their scant possessions. This did not connect directly with the oratorio's main theme of triumph against adversity, celebrating the Work of the Lord. The plagues, graphically and sufficiently illustrated by Handel in his music, were shown with frogs, bugs and medical pictures of bodily sores. Overall, a large eye, God's maybe, stared and occasionally winked at us.
The aim is no doubt essentially commercial, in these times when there is desperation about getting younger people in and retaining audiences for classical concerts. It is like a reversal of the early stage of cinema, with music added to the visual images to generate atmosphere. The problem is that you need a genius to match a genius, and these efforts are usually still rather perfunctory and desultory. The credits did not even name who was responsible for what we watched! It needs a lot more flair and thought than an occasional event like this can presumably afford.
This was not the worst example of the genre I have encountered, but I can sympathise with those who preferred to keep their eyes averted. Despite these caveats (which one of us might have put more strongly!) this was a good night's music making and I look forward to what they decide to put in the Freemasons' Hall slot at next year's Covent Garden Festival. Perhaps the moral is to not try too hard, and to trust the composers and their music.
Peter Grahame Woolf
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