Handel’s Israel in Egypt at Duke Chapel
by Jeffrey Rossman
April 5, 2009, Durham, NC: Keeping up, musically, with the Joneses is not a phenomenon confined to our modern times. During Handel’s very long tenure in London during the 1730s – 40s, he watched as the almost unthinkable happened: a major decline in the popularity of the nearly indomitable Italian opera. Handel, single-handedly, came up with an alternative that retained some degree of vocal display combined with interesting storylines but with emphasis on choral singing – the oratorio was born.
Israel in Egypt, premiered to disappointed audiences in 1739, uses passages primarily from Exodus to tell the story of Israel’s escape from Egypt followed by texts praising God following their redemption. Unlike Messiah and other Handel oratorios, Israel in Egypt features relatively few solos and recitatives, instead relying on the power of choral singing, including several sections of double chorus. Who better to handle this Handel (forgive the bad pun) than Rodney Wynkoop, directing the Duke Chapel Choir, Duke Chorale, and orchestra at Duke Chapel?
As anyone who has worked with Wynkoop can tell you, he demands focus, discipline and excellence from all of the singers and instrumentalists, regardless of the size of the ensemble. The result is a performance that is, to employ an overused expression, simply awesome. The professionalism has been ratcheted up a bit in the orchestra as there were even more members than is usually the case from the North Carolina Symphony, several who are principals of their sections. The acoustics of Duke Chapel is a difficult animal to tame, but no one has more experience with that than Wynkoop. He was able to keep a delicate balance among a smallish chamber orchestra, more than 200 choristers, and soloists without sacrificing the musical fabric.
Israel begins with what portends the entire work: a very
brief recitative that sets up the action, including the delicious plagues
to come that Handel brilliantly paints musically.
As good as the soloists were this is a decidedly choral work – perhaps one of the most demanding in the entire literature in terms of difficulty and actual singing time. In this nearly flawless performance, the only fault seemed to be a noticeable lack of stamina and focus from the men as the afternoon wore on. They lagged behind the beat during the late choruses along with a decrease in section cohesiveness. There were many wonderful moments, but some of the tone painting of Handel in both the voices and instruments was quite spectacular. One of the best, that had everyone “buzzing,” was the violins turned into scurrying insects while the chorus sang “…there came all manner of flies and lice in all quarters. He spake; and the locusts came without number…”
Throughout Israel there is an abundance of that famous Handel polyphonic writing that can easily descend into a formless mush in lesser hands. The choral presentation was disciplined, yet possessed a sense of excitement and joy as well as rhythmic precision – no easy feat in that reverb chamber known as Duke Chapel.