(London Handel Orchestra and Singers at St George’s Hanover Square, 20 April 2017)
Andrew Lloyd Webber wasn’t the first to realise that a good musical could be made from the story of Joseph in Egypt. 224 years before Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat was premiered, Handel chose the same subject for the second of two oratorios performed in his 1743 season (the first, a month before Joseph, was Semele). With a libretto by the radical clergyman James Miller, adapted in part from an earlier work by Apostolo Zeno, Handel’s oratorio throws us straight into the action, midway through the story. We first meet Joseph in prison in Egypt, and the tale follows his rise to power, his love for the beautiful Asenath, and his eventual reconciliation with his brothers. This was my final outing for this year’s Handel Festival and it proved a great conclusion, overseen by the ever-admirable Laurence Cummings with the London Handel Orchestra and Singers.
Pharaoh is having bad dreams and his butler Phanor suddenly remembers the young man who was once in prison with him: a young man, incidentally, for whom Phanor had promised to beg freedom from the king. Judging that intervention is better late than never, Phanor has Joseph brought before Pharaoh and, with the grace of God, the young man is able to predict the seven years of plenty and seven of famine. Amazed at his abilities, the grateful Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of the country’s supplies and marries him off, for good measure, to Asenath, daughter of the High Priest Potiphara (possibly, although not certainly, the same person as Potiphar: the jury is out). Joseph is given the new name Zaphnath-Paaneah, which sounds grand but is a devil to articulate as part of an aria, and he and Asenath enjoy the distinction of being the only operatic couple I’ve seen so far to be happily married by the end of Act 1 Scene 6.
Fast forward seven-odd years. Joseph, or Zaphnath, as everyone insists on calling him, has become a powerful and much-admired man (essentially a vizier). He is also a proud father, but the birth of his sons reminds him of his strained relationship with his own brothers, and he thinks wistfully of his old simple life. Soon events give him the chance to reconcile with the past. The famine brings his brothers to Egypt, seeking to buy food and, on recognising them, Joseph conceives a plan. He accuses them (falsely) of being spies and, when they protest that they’re just a humble band of brothers with a little brother at home, Joseph insists that they bring that little brother, Benjamin, to Egypt as proof. Simeon is kept as a hostage in Egypt while the rest of the brothers scurry home. Handel and Millar don’t show us any of that, however: Act 2 begins with Simeon in prison, neatly mirroring Joseph’s predicament in Act 1, awaiting his brothers’ return.
But what will Joseph do when they do come back? Will he reveal himself or exact his long-awaited vengeance on them for their past cruelty to him? How far is he prepared to carry his pretence, and with which motives? His beloved wife Asenath, noticing his preoccupation, fears that she has displeased him in some way – after all, it wouldn’t be a Baroque story without some romantic confusion – and so Joseph’s final revelation not only restores his relationship with his family, but also comforts her.
The plot hinges on Joseph’s innate goodness, which is emphasised almost ad nauseam at the beginning of Act 2, in an account of the love the Egyptian people feel for him. Apparently Miller was writing his libretto in a period when Joseph, as a Biblical character, was the subject of intense debate focusing on his motives and character. Was he the virtuous and charitable overseer of the Bible? Or was he in fact an ambitious and unscrupulous man who had conned his way into Pharaoh’s favour? A pre-performance talk drew out interesting, if not always entirely convincing, examples of how Miller’s libretto may have aimed to refute the theological arguments of Deism or political criticism of Robert Walpole (for whom Joseph, as ‘prime minister’, could be a mirror).
You’d be forgiven for assuming that Joseph is the main character and, from a dramatic point of view, he is; but the best music goes to Asenath. I admit I was disappointed when we heard that Elizabeth Watts had withdrawn from the role due to a chest infection. She was one of the reasons I’d been so looking forward to this production. However, my chagrin was short-lived. The role was taken, presumably at very short notice, by Fflur Wyn, winner of the 2005 Handel Singing Competition, who gave us a lucid, warm and graceful performance. I grew more and more impressed with her as the oratorio progressed and it became clear that Asenath gets all the complicated arias. Act 1’s I feel a spreading flame within my veins could well have been the aria of the night, but Asenath is a role that just keeps on giving and I was equally astounded by Wyn’s facility in Our fruits, whilst yet in blossom die (where a mournful A section was separated by a speedier B section that could have come straight out of an Italian opera), The silver stream, that all its way (which was the closest we got to a storm aria, with a turbulent cascade of notes), and the astounding Prophetic raptures swell my breast (which was mad even before the da capo ornamentation, and earned the only post-aria applause of the night).
Joseph was sung by Christopher Ainslie, whom I’d never seen live, but whom I knew from his recording of Arne’s Artaxerxes, where he takes the title role. He has what I think of as a ‘choral countertenor’: his voice is pure and beautifully suited to sacred works, the Monteverdi-Cavalli repertoire, or the restrained airs of English-language opera from the mid-18th century. From my seat at the back of the church, he had a warm, buttery tone with a nice depth to it: this was no shallow, fragile voice. Joseph’s music isn’t the most exciting, especially when held up against Asenath’s: his purpose is to provide the moral heart of the story, rather than its turbulence. However, I was quite taken with Act 3’s The people’s favour, and the smiles of pow’r, where Ainslie offered some beautiful ornament on the line ‘Till love begins to wane‘. Dramatically he made the most of the role, smiling fondly at Asenath whenever they were together, and responding sternly to his brothers while still ‘incognito’. Having waited for some time to see him in the flesh, I was pleased to see him perform so strongly. I see he’s singing the title role in English Touring Opera‘s Giulio Cesare this autumn, so I’m looking forward to seeing how he tackles those arias.
The secondary roles were also very finely sung. First I have to mention Edward Grint, who made a majestic Pharaoh: the role gave him a greater showcase for his voice than he had as Xerxes‘s Elviro or Calisto‘s Silvano. He didn’t always get the best lyrics, because Miller is one of those English librettists who can never resist the lure of an awkward rhyming couplet (e.g. ‘Since the race of time begun, Since the birthday of the sun‘. Come back Metastasio; all is forgiven). But his delivery was splendid. He came back later as Reuben, although sadly there was less for him to do here, as the Brethren’s arias are dominated by pieces for the tenor.
That tenor was William Wallace, whom I don’t think I’ve seen before (fun fact: Wallace is his stage name; his real name is William Morgan). He turned in a fine performance with the conventional doubling of roles of Simeon and Judah, only emphasising that there is such a thing as a Baroque tenor. You can’t just pop a belcanto tenor into the repertoire and expect it to work: it doesn’t, as I’ve seen several times. Wallace is the perfect kind of Handelian tenor: strong but light and versatile. At the beginning of Act 2, as Simeon, he wallows in the throes of a classic mad aria (‘Remorse, confusion, horror, fear, Ye vultures of the guilty breast!‘) and just a bit later, as Judah, he has a jaunty little number in the form of To keep afar from all offence, which I thought Wallace was rather enjoying.
Then there were the assorted Egyptian officials, in the form of Phanor and Potiphara the priest, whose roles were also doubled up and performed by mezzo Anna Starushkevch. I haven’t heard her before but she won the Handel Singing Competition in 2012 and I immediately warmed to her. She has that dark, textured kind of voice that really appeals to me and she handled her coloratura extremely well, with only a couple of hitches in pronunciation to indicate that English is her second language (at least). I hope to see her in more in the future: interestingly, it turns out that she is represented by Parnassus, so we may well see her on recordings with Max Cencic and Xavier Sabata some day soon.
The last member of the cast is Joseph’s little brother Benjamin, a role written for a boy treble. Laurence Cummings kept to tradition in casting George Vyvyan, a chorister at Westminster Abbey and, according to his discography and biography, as experienced a performer as anyone else in the cast. His voice wasn’t quite what I was expecting, though: I suppose I’ve stereotyped boy trebles as always being pure and soaring, and indeed Vyvyan had a few places where he could show off that sweep of white sound. But much of Benjamin’s role takes place in what would be chest voice for a boy, and here Vyvyan had quite a strong burr. At thirteen, he must be close to his voice breaking and every time he sang, with that slightly unstable huskiness, I was horribly anxious on his behalf. It was great to have a boy singing the part, though, because it emphasises Benjamin’s sweetness and innocence, and makes his accusation all the more piteous.
Some of the greatest moments in the oratorio were the choruses, great, rousing wall-of-sound affairs with drums and trumpets on a couple of occasions. Handel could certainly write a damn good chorus, and there were definite hints of Messiah here and there. There’s also a Grand March which, as you might expect, had me squirming with delight. So, all in all, it was far from being the earnest and sober piece I’d been expecting. I’ve always steered clear of the oratorios for that reason, but now I’ll look forward to them with greater alacrity. I have two more coming up soon, in fact: Jeptha and Israel in Egypt, so we’ll see how those two Biblical stories compare to this one.
I spent a while searching for an appropriate image to head this post, before deciding that upbeat Biblical artwork was the way to go (the artist is the American Michael Malm, who does a lot of faith-based artwork). As you’d imagine, the Internet is full of pictures of Joseph and his brothers, and I was struck by how jolly most of them were. Joseph reveals himself and suddenly there’s hugs and laughter all round. Everyone seems to have forgotten that, until this point, Joseph has been playing a very cruel psychological game with his brothers, exploiting his power over them. Although Miller’s libretto is keen to show Joseph as a thoroughly virtuous, noble and forgiving character, let’s not forget that he’s just kept Simeon in prison for a year and that he plants a silver cup on little Benjamin before pretending to arrest him. If that isn’t a power-play, I don’t know what is. Similarly, wouldn’t his brothers be alarmed to realise that their lives are in the hands of someone who, last time they saw him, they’d thrown down a well? Wouldn’t there have been an element of, ‘Oops: this is awkward’? Such things aren’t exactly the basis of familial love and trust. But never mind.