Beyond Messiah: Handel and Bach Resound for the Holidays

The American Symphony Orchestra lovingly revived the oratorio 'Judas Maccabaeus' for Hanukkah, and the English Concert brought an unusually gripping Rodelinda to Carnegie Hall.

A concert performance of an opera with several performers and a conductor
Liv Redpath and Joshua Hopkins in ‘Christmas Oratorio’. Photo: Stephanie Berger

In December, concert halls and churches ring with baroque music, especially Handel’s. But this year along with the composer’s ubiquitous Messiah, the American Symphony Orchestra lovingly revived his oratorio Judas Maccabaeus for Hanukkah, and the English Concert’s annual visit brought an unusually gripping Rodelinda to Carnegie Hall, where the Orchestra of St. Luke’s embraced Bach with a rare complete Weihnachtsoratorium. 

Though Messiah is most often heard at Christmas, it rightly should be performed near Easter. However, one is more likely to encounter Bach at Easter when his two great Passions dominate, yet his lovely Christmas Oratorio is regularly offered. The Oratorio is made up of six cantatas: one each for the first three days of Christmas, followed by one for the first Sunday after the New Year and for the Feasts of Christ’s Circumcision and the Epiphany. Each cantata lasts twenty to thirty minutes and consists of choruses, chorales, arias and duets and, like the Passions, is narrated by a tenor Evangelist.

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The Orchestra of St. Luke’s well-known devotion to Bach includes an annual June festival dedicated to the composer; therefore, the excellence of its Christmas Oratorio on December 4 under Principal Conductor Bernard Labadie came as no surprise. In addition to four fine vocal soloists, the concert featured La Chapelle de Québec, the superb thirty-member Canadian chorus founded by Labadie nearly forty years ago. Effortlessly filling Carnegie’s large auditorium, it sang with exemplary precision and clarity accompanied by the alertly vivid orchestra. Particularly outstanding in their frequent obbligati were concertmaster Krista Bennion Feeney and first oboist Melanie Field.

Andrew Hajj with his brightly candid tenor excelled as the Evangelist though the fiendishly challenging coloratura of his arias once or twice threatened to elude his grasp. Joshua Hopkins brought a vigorously forthright baritone to his many duties, while the enveloping warmth of Avery Amereau’s contralto made one wish she had more to do. Fresh from her successful Metropolitan Opera debut as Oscar in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, soprano Liv Redpath once again stepped up to replace the originally announced Lauren Snouffer. Redpath’s glowing soprano grew even more radiant as it rose, and she partnered affectingly with the robust Hopkins in their duets.

One was grateful to OSL for offering a complete Weihnachtsoratorium. The repetitive structure of its six cantatas made one understand why usually only the first three are performed.

An opera singer with her mouth wide open in song raises her arms in jubilation
Lucy Crowe in ‘Rodelinda’. Photo: Steve J. Sherman

As London audiences grew weary of the Italian opera seria that brought Handel fame and fortune, the composer turned to English oratorios. Unlike Messiah, nearly all resemble his operas in presenting dramatis personae in conflict, and Saul, Jephtha and Theodora stand with the operas as compelling music dramas. However, Judas Maccabaeus is more of a pageant in which just two of its characters—Judas and his brother Simon—are named.

Judas, greatly popular during the 18th and 19th Centuries, appears less frequently these days perhaps due to its occasionally uninspired score as well as its stolid, uninvolving libretto, originally conceived to stir up nationalistic fervor during the mid-1740s, a particularly trying time for the English monarchy. Described in the Apocrypha, Israel’s underdog victory over the Seleucids proved an outstanding parallel for Handel’s nationalistic audiences who were especially taken with the infectious smash hit “See the conquering hero,” which the composer snatched from his earlier Joshua.

Soprano Brandie Sutton began uncertainly but soon warmed to a charmingly stylish, if lowkey account of the anonymous Israelitish Woman. As her male counterpart, Deborah Nansteel brought winning authority along with an uncertain grasp of Handel’s idiom, so her frequent duets with Sutton failed to bloom. Tenor Jack Swanson’s irresistibly virile Judas excelled in his rousing warmongering. His challengingly florid lines, however, sometimes lacked the smooth and easy flow that one heard from bass William Guanso Su as a gravely sonorous Simon.

The American Symphony Orchestra’s music director and principal conductor Leon Botstein excels at resurrecting long-forgotten 19th- and 20th-century works rarely venturing into the pre-Romantic repertoire. However, he led Judas with a grand yet often lively touch, though Botstein’s methodical reading framed the work in discrete blocks rather in urgent sequences. Prepared by James Bagwell, the combined forces of the Bard Festival Chorale and the Choir of Riverside Church (where the December 14 concert took place) sang the collective Israelites’s at-first mournful then jubilant music with enviable unanimity and thrilling majesty.

The English Concert brought along the Clarion Choir when it presented Solomon at Carnegie Hall in March, but for this season’s Handel there, just six singers assembled for Rodelinda which conductor Harry Bicket had led less than two years ago at the Met.

The last time the English Concert presented an opera in New York, Serse appeared as if the singers had been left to their own devices and lacked dramatic focus. Rodelinda proved consistently more involving as the performers (all using scores placed on the music stands in front of them) still interacted with fiery commitment. They were aided by Bicket’s intensely propulsive guidance, and his skilled players on period instruments wielded with their accustomed polish.

Brandon Cedel sounded as if his brash bass-baritone has been growing and may soon find Garibaldo’s villainous coloratura less easy, but for the December 10 matinee he plotted with suavely devilish glee. While Christine Rice delighted in her character’s predicaments, her dark mezzo consistently found her Eduige’s music a bit too low for comfort. Though he conspicuously relied on his score more than the others, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Unulfo showed off the beautifully seamless countertenor that European opera houses have recently been enjoying. His music also was sometimes a bit too low for him, but he wisely seized any chance to ornament his arias upwards.

Their characters pale next to the dangerous royal love triangle that dominates Rodelinda, the third of the remarkable trio of masterpieces, also including Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano, that Handel premiered in less than a year. Nicola Haym’s taut libretto revolves around the usurper Grimoaldo’s efforts to win Rodelinda, whose husband Bertarido he ordered murdered. But Bertarido survived and returns to reclaim his wife, child and throne.

Grimoaldo must be Handel’s most complex bad boy, whose biting outbursts are contrasted with exquisite arias of longing. Eric Fenning invested his doomed wooing of the mourning, yet defiant widow with a hypnotic urgency, yet his high, edgy tenor still commanded our sympathy. After Orlando and Rinaldo, Iestyn Davies returned for his third and most successful opera seria with the English Concert. If his countertenor again lacked heroic excitement, he sounded fresher and more involved than he has recently, and time stood still during his ravishing entrance aria “Dove sei, amato bene?”

Lucy Crowe proved a frustrating Rodelinda, the opera’s resilient heroine. Long associated with Handel and the English Concert, Crowe thoughtfully wielded a brightly burnished soprano that in many ways was absolutely right for the role. Yet as in other recent performances and recordings, she often indulged in over-the-top ornamentation that invariably took her up to shrieky high notes and caused her to contort her face and body. By the final act, I dreaded every cadence or da capo repeat. In stark contrast, her Rodelinda colleagues added only exceedingly modest decoration to their arias. However, Crowe and Davies blended exquisitely in the opera’s only duet which closed the second act sublimely.

While the Met reportedly has co-productions of Handel’s Alcina, Ariodante and Semele waiting in the wings, one hopes the English Concert will return next season with Tamerlano which, like Rodelinda, was a pandemic casualty. In the meantime, noted Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená performs arias from Alcina at Zankel Hall with La Cetra on April 24 followed on May 6 by the Oratorio Society of New York’s rendition of Samson.

Beyond Messiah: Handel and Bach Resound for the Holidays