Review: Esther

A glorious performance of Handel's forgotten oratorio.

Stadthalle, Gottingen Festival, 7pm Thursday 19 May, 2012

You won’t find Gottingen mentioned in any biographies of Handel. As far as we know the composer never so much as visited this small university town in Saxony, but this hasn’t stopped Gottingen from establishing itself internationally as a go-to destination for his music. Home to the largest Handel society in the world, Gottingen’s annual Handel Festival has a spirit all its own, taking over the town’s streets, churches and concert halls with a programme that sets the pace for the nation’s other major Handel festivals at the composer’s own birthplace of Halle.

In a twist that reflects Handel’s own sympathies and affiliations, the Gottingen Handel Festival this year celebrates the appointment of its third English musical director in a row. Following Nicholas McGeegan and John Eliot Gardiner, Laurence Cummings will now take over the direction of the celebrated Gottingen Festival Orchestra (a Who’s Who of baroque musicians from around the world) and lead the festival into the celebrations of its centenary in 2020.

Cummings’ avowed intention is to ensure that the festival has performed every single one of Handel’s 47 operas by the anniversary, so audiences can expect rarities and oddities aplenty over the next few seasons. In this spirit of exploration, alongside a fully-staged production of Amadigi and repertoire stalwart Solomon, this year’s festival also featured a performance of Handel’s neglected first oratorio Esther.

Marking the composer’s transition from the Italian operas of his early years to the English oratorios of his latter, Esther is both an experiment and a glorious hybrid – combining the dynamic contrapuntal chorus writing of oratorio with some genuinely dramatic solo music. It’s also something of a musical mongrel, with borrowings (some subtle, others such as the two Coronation Anthems rather less so) stitched freely into fabric rich with trumpets, harp and woodwind.

Cummings’ orchestras always breathe together, feeling the sway and swell of Handel’s dance rhythms right through the body, and the Gottingen Festival Orchestra are no exception. One of Handel’s most lyrical overtures (with its beautiful oboe solo) offered an unusually delicate beginning, only the contrarian tug of gut strings and crisp baroque bowing tempering the textural sheen. This ensemble is perhaps the festival’s biggest draw, a period super-group whose virtuosity never risks overwhelming the repertoire.

While young singers dominated the cast of Amadigi, a rather more established line-up of soloists led us through the blood and thunder of this Old Testament drama. Announcing her arrival in a flurry of impeccably-articulated coloratura brilliance, Carolyn Sampson’s Esther was by turns softly imploring (her pianissimo shading in duet “Who calls my parting soul from death?” was a miracle of control) and implacably authoritative. Her polished musicianship was more than matched by Iestyn Davies’ Ahasverus, who made much of one of Handel’s more pedestrian roles, gamely stepping up to the unforgiving vocal contortions of the closing “Alleluia” alto solo.

Blessed with all the long-limbed melodies Handel denies the four-square Ahasverus, Mordecai is an altogether more lyrical role and well-suited to the softer grained voice of Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor. Although slightly underpowered in places, his “So much beauty sweetly blooming” benefitted from the fragile tenderness Taylor brought to it, and his sweetness of tone flourished in partnership with Sophie Junker’s Israelite Woman (a rather tense performance that didn’t do justice to her fine instrument) in “Blessings, descend on downy wings”. Relishing his role as the villainous of the piece, Njal Sparbo’s Haman spat and hissed his way through his arias, reaching dramatic climax in a ferocious “Pluck root and branch” that matched Cummings’ brass for clarity and impact.

Set back beyond the orchestra in the Stadthalle, Germany’s NDR Choir were at something of a disadvantage however, and their diction and articulation never quite succeeded in projecting the crucial text, nor the dramatic energy Handel ascribes to their music.

A capacity audience for this comparatively obscure work paid tribute to the festival’s loyal following, and it would be hard to imagine anyone leaving disappointed with this persuasive performance. Cummings has the personality, warmth and energy so crucial to this most intimate of festival setups, and his bond with the musicians already seems well-established. Exuberance doesn’t stop at the concert hall doors in Gottingen, with the entire town in thrall to Handel’s music for two weeks each year. It’s an enthusiasm that is as infectious as it is justified.

A statue of composer George Frideric Handel sits above Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey. (Photo: Getty Images)

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism