The year 1732 had ended dismally for Handel. Once the toast of London, master of Italian Opera and in snug with the Crown and the rest of London's music besotted Royalty (cognoscenti and dilettantes both), a reaction against Italian Opera had assumed fever pitch with the production of John Gay's Beggar's Opera and the newly formed "Opera of the Nobility". Handel's well-heeled friends were deserting him and his purse was thin. In desperation, on May 2 of that year, a reworked version of a 1718 Masque entitled Esther was presented without dramatic staging. It was modestly successful, enjoying 6 performances. It enabled Handel to pocket 700 Pounds which he promptly invested in a South Seas venture. Thus was Handellian Oratorio born.
So in 1733, realizing that Italian Opera was probably dead for now yet unwilling to take the hint that Opera in England should be written IN English, Handel took advantage of his small success with Esther and hurriedly composed (assembled is perhaps more accurate) a second Oratorio to a libretto by Samuel Humphreys based on the Book of Judges, chapter 4. The chosen story is gruesome, perhaps reflecting Handel's mood and desire for revenge, if only artistic. The Israelites, 20 years captive, are told by the prophetess Deborah that Sisera, the Canaanite commander, will be killed by a woman. After they go to war, Sisera dutifully flees the battlefield seeking sanctuary in the tent of the beautiful young Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. She protects him, gives him a bowl of milk, then seduces him. Obviously weary (and full of milk), Sisera falls asleep in her arms. While he sleeps soundly, Jael rises stealthily and nails his head to the ground with a tent peg. General rejoicing and alarums follow with Jael praised by one-and-all for her nobility and wicked mallet hand. That is one zany plot for an Oratorio.
The libretto itself is somewhat sketchy, indicating the haste with which it was written. Handel's music is assembled from several sources, including the Coronation Anthems, the Chandos Anthems, the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne and Dixit Dominus. The scoring of Deborah is expansive. Handel utilizes an eight-part choir and a large orchestra containing strings, oboes, bassoons, flutes, three horns, three trumpets, timpani, harpsichord and two organs. There are also ripieno lines for cellos and bassoons and detailed instructions for the disposition of the keyboard instruments.
This recording, another in Robert King's superlative series of Handel's lesser known Operas and Oratorios, features the same high level of performance. The King's Consort plays beautifully. They are a band with exquisite finesse, easily my favorite Baroque orchestra. The Choir of New College, Oxford and the Choristers of Salisbury Cathedral are perfection. This music is in their bones. The assembled cast, one often associated with Mr. King, make the most of what is a rather thin libretto. Soprano Yvonne Kenny is fine as Deborah. Soprano Susan Gritton is a winning and seductive manslaughter-minded Jael. Catherine Denley, mezzo-soprano, is the lactose intolerant Sisera. Countertenor James Bowman, an old hand to this repetoire, is Barak. He is in particularly fine voice here.
The recording itself is bright, warm and clear. Sonics are broad and deep, with a nice illusion of space. This is a great performance of an historically important work by Handel. If you like your Handel seasoned with finesse and taste, you will enjoy this recording. Strong recommendation and 5 stars for another significant release by Hyperion.