The best of Baroque times with Opera Lafayette’s tale of two Esthers

Fri May 10, 2024 at 12:45 pm
Justin Taylor conducted Opera Lafayette in works of Handel and Moreau Thursday night at St. Peter’s Church. Photo: Jennifer Packard

The 2024 celebration of Purim, centered on the biblical story of Esther, is now behind us, but the brave and honest queen had a curtain call Thursday night at St. Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue, as Opera Lafayette compellingly presented highlights of not one but two Baroque tellings of her story.

George Frideric Handel’s Esther of 1732 was his first oratorio, following a string of successes in the opera house. Far less known today is the Esther of Jean-Baptiste Moreau, with text by the great playwright Jean Racine, commissioned in 1688 for a very specific purpose by Madame de Maintenon, the secret wife of King Louis XIV.

If Handel’s aim was mainly to entertain and flatter his English audience, Maintenon wanted material suitable for young ladies to perform at Saint-Cyr, the boarding school she had founded for the daughters of impoverished noble families. She wanted stories with plenty of drama and a moral, but no amours to overstimulate her young charges.

Maybe she could also relate to a queen with a secret. In any case, the story of Esther, the Jewish queen of Persia who saved her people by revealing her true identity, suited Madame de Maintenon’s aesthetic (and political) purposes perfectly–just as Moreau’s Esther suited the cultural mission of Opera Lafayette, which is to present fine performances not just on historical instruments, but surrounded by historical context.

So it came as no surprise that the orchestra of a dozen instruments, mostly strings, sounded born to shape Moreau’s swooning phrases and snap out his dancing rhythms. Their tight ensemble was attributable in no small part to their leader Justin Taylor, playing the harpsichord fluently and guiding his colleagues with ample body English on the bench.

Accordingly, one had to thank Moreau for liberally sprinkling instrumental interludes through his score, including a stately Ouverture, a sighing Prélude, an Entracte in variation form, and a snappy fast Marche. Throughout the piece, Taylor and the company artfully managed the frequent changes of tempo and meter characteristic of the French style.

Moreau’s arias and choruses, meant for unsophisticated singers, made few technical demands on the three soloists, who nevertheless brought considerable art to their roles. Soprano Paulina Francisco’s well-supported voice was clear but far from colorless in her pathos-laden opening aria, ”Pleurons et gemissons.” Her discreet use of vibrato seemed just right for a grownup singing music written for a girl.

Soprano Elisse Albian sounded a touch more operatic calling for divine intervention in an aria with two recorders obbligati, “Dieu d’Israël,” and summoning royal power in “Ainsi puisse sous toi trembler.” In contrast, mezzo-soprano Kristen Dubenion-Smith counseled royal discretion as she dipped into a strong lower register in “Détourne, Roi puissant.”

The three singers joined forces handsomely in the choruses, which Moreau kept simple and homophonic, the better to convey Racine’s text and moral message.

The concert’s overall title, “From Saint-Cyr to Cannons,” with its allusion to the country estate of Handel’s patron, was pleasantly evocative of the composers’ worlds, but implied a connection between the two Esthers that, as Anne Piéjus’s informative program note made clear, didn’t really exist.

But if Handel composed his 1718 masque, and then the oratorio version in 1732, knowing nothing of the Moreau Esther of 1688, it was still instructive to hear their French and Anglo-Italo-German “takes” on the story side by side. If nothing else, it certainly exploded any notion that “Baroque music” is all one thing.

For the Handel, the three women soloists were joined by the oaken-toned tenor Jesse Darden as Ahasuerus, the king who changed his mind; the powerful, articulate bass-baritone Jonathan Woody as the scheming minister Haman; and tenor Jacob Perry, a solid presence in the choruses and soloing briefly as an Israelite.

Soprano Francisco as Esther adapted her lucid tone to Handel’s adult operatic idiom, eloquently conveying the Jewish queen’s trepidation in “Tears assist me, pity moving” and bravery in “O gracious King, my people spare.” No one wrote villains like Handel, and it was a pleasure to hear Woody wrap his enormous voice around the bloodthirsty aria “Pluck root and branch,” the wheedling “Turn not, O Queen, thy face away,” and the bitter “How art thou fallen.” Tenor Darden made the most of his less colorful role as the upstanding “straight man” of the drama.

Leader Taylor realized Handel’s matchless evocation of moods with an orchestra enhanced by additional string players and virtuoso turns on oboe and natural trumpet.

Then it was all hands on deck for this strong ensemble and the six singers, in the gently swinging “Praise the Lord with cheerful noise,” and the exuberant final chorus, “The Lord our enemy has slain”—definitely adult music for grownup singers, bristling with contrapuntal virtuosity.

It was, alas, a guilty pleasure, this exulting in the suffering of “our enemy” in the present time of war and moral confusion. One can only wish, along with Justin Taylor in his pre-concert remarks to the audience, that “music will gather people and bring hope.” 

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