Bayreuth Baroque Festival 2021 Review: Judas Maccabaeus

Naessens Overseas A Flawed But Enjoyable Performance

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Ralf Münch)

The recently restored Stadtkirche was chosen as the venue for the festival’s performance of Handel’s 1647 oratorio “Judas Maccabaeus.” Situated in the historical center, it is the city’s largest church, built in the late gothic style between 1611 and 1614. It is dominated by its two imposing domed towers which are connected by a bridge. It is a three aisle construction, and being a Protestant church its walls are fairly plain, white plaster with rust-brown borders, adorned by a limited number of paintings. Its golden alter dating from 1615, however, is more ornate, consisting of three panels with paintings from the 19th century. Musical performances in churches are at the mercy of its acoustic which can vary considerably, with clarity pitted against reverberation, and in some cases even against a distinctive echoing effect, in which their high ceilings tend to produce that distinctive sound in which music and voices tend to hang in the air. Although the Stadtkirche proved to have one or two acoustic problems it was no worse and no better than the average large church in this regard, notwithstanding the fact that each listener can have their own preferred acoustic.

A Victory Celebration

In 1746 the English routed the Scottish Jacobite army under the command of the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden Moor, and brought the rebellion against the English Crown to an end. One year later, to celebrate the victory, Handel premiered “Judas Maccabaeus” at Covent Garden. The libretto by Thomas Morell relates the victory of the Israelites over the Seleucid army, which was determined to exterminate the Jewish religion; the work’s allegorical connection to the Jacobites being a fairly obvious one.

The libretto, in three parts, follows the fortunes of the Israelites from dejection and defeat to victory and triumph. Although it sounds very dramatic, it is actually an introverted work, with no actual depiction of the events themselves, and in which the characters are largely reflective, commenting on virtues, such as honor, bravery, and subordination to God’s will, with emotions kept on a fairly tight rein.

A Problem With The Language

Of the four main soloists, only one was a native English speaker, and unfortunately, it showed. In the case of the two female singers, their English was at times barely intelligible, in which only the occasional word could be understood. The problem, of course, comes in the knock-on effects; with poor pronunciation comes poor intonation, so that the stressing and accenting of words sounds awkward and expressivity suffers, especially in passages of recitative.

The Russian bass Pavel Kudinov, however, in the role of Simon coped well with the linguistic demands, so that it was not a particularly noticeable problem in his case. Even the recitatives could be easily understood, which he sang with considerable expressivity. He possesses an authoritative voice, with a pleasing tone and plenty of agility which he used intelligently and skillfully to develop his character. In his opening air “Arm, arm ye brave! A noble cause” in which he rallies the Jews and calls on them to defend their nation, he showed off his strong voice to good effect, capturing the lyricism of the piece, as well as establishing his authoritative position within the society. Of the other airs, his rendition of “The Lord worketh wonders” caught the attention in what was a powerful presentation, in which he inflected the vocal line with interesting colors and neatly crafted embellishments, including short pleasing coloraturas.

Ukrainian Iryna Kyshliaruk undertook the part of the Israelite Woman as a replacement for Lucy Crowe, and despite her poor English, made a strong impression, for she possesses a beautiful, versatile voice with an appealing upper register. In her first air “O liberty, thou choicest treasure” to an orchestral accompaniment of cello and theorbo she displayed real quality with her delicate phrasing, engaging embellishments, and pleasing legato. However, she actually improved upon this in the air “Ah! Wretched, wretched Israel.” To a thin orchestral accompaniment, which once again, consisted largely of cello and theorba, she produced a performance with a high degree of sensitivity, crafting delicate and gentle lines of intense beauty, which melded softly into a chorus. In her more lively airs, she successfully incorporated a more vibrant and energetic approach, as in “So shall the lute and harp awake” in which her upper register and lively coloratura caught the attention.

Dutch mezzo-soprano Olivia Vermeulen in the role of the Israelite Man, whose English pronunciation was only marginally better, similarly managed to produce a pleasing performance, in which her colorful pallet and secure technique impressed. For the aria “Father of heav’n! From thy eternal” she produced an engaging rendition which showed off the depth and beauty of the voice, which possessed a warm undercurrent that she allowed to fill out and bloom to good effect, replete with pleasing, subtle embellishments and short coloraturas.

Three duets of the six Handel wrote for the two female soloists were performed, “From this dread scene, these adverse pow’rs” “O never, never bow we down” and “O lovely peace, with plenty crown’d.” The first of which, however, was not presented particularly well, as the two soloists struggled to read each other. The second and third duets were far more successful, with “O lovely peace, with plenty crown’d” given a truly beautiful rendition in which Vermuelen and Kyshliaruk’s attractive voices contrasted and supported each other, as they delicately and sensitively intertwined.

Vocal Clarity & Perfect Intonation

As the only native English speaker, tenor Benjamin Hulett as Judas Maccabaeus showed what was missing from the other soloists. His pronunciation was clear, allowing the words to be understood without having to refer to the libretto, and his intonation was correct, giving his performance an expressive edge lacking from the other soloists. Airs were delivered with attention to their emotional and expressive meanings in which “Call forth thy pow’rs, my souls and dare” was particularly successful. Although only a short air, Hulett established Judas’ leadership with a forceful rendition in which his voice earnest, confident and encouraging, topped by a short coloratura display, convincingly fortified his men. The oratorio’s highpoint is the hero’s air “Sound the alarm! Your silver trumpets sound,” for which he produced a suitably powerful performance. His voice rang out securely above the orchestra and filled the church, while simultaneously adorning his lines with pleasing embellishments, which included a fine coloratura passage. It was a well-presented air, in which the bright clarity of the trumpets added to the military flavor of the piece. Throughout the performance, his recitatives were nicely accented and intoned so that they became alive with emotional and expressive depth.

The three small roles were all parted successfully. The bass Tiemo Wang gave a pleasant, calmly delivered, and secure performance as Eupolemus, while Kerlijne Van Nevel made the most of her recitatives as the First Messenger. It was countertenor Pieter De Pratere as the Second Messenger who caught the eye with his bright, pleasing timbre, in what was the smallest of the three roles.

An Energetic & Sensitive Choral Performance

The choir BachPlus gave an energetic and thoroughly engaging performance that caught the vastly changing moods of the Jewish people. In the opening chorus “Mourn ye afflicted children” they created mournful harmonies, in which the voices overlapped in waves of sorrow, whilst in “Sing unto God” they sang out in full voice, attacking the line with vibrancy, joy, and energy, to glorify their God, following their victory over the Seleucid, supported by the orchestra which joins in the celebrations. The voice types were always nicely balanced as they overlapped, supported, and contrasted, as they wove a beautiful vocal tapestry. Their sensitivity to the soloists was also well managed. As Judas’ air “Sound the alarm!” concludes, the music continues directly into the following chorus, in which it responds with “We hear, we hear the pleasing dreadful call,” their voices instinctively capturing the dramatic impact of the moment. Of course, the final chorus “Hallelujah! Amen” was always likely to receive a good reception if sung well, and they did not disappoint. In fact, it was encored.

Naessens’ Direction Maintains A Good Balance

The orchestra B’Rock conducted by Bart Naessens was a little slow to find its footing. The overture was heavy and textures were dense and murky, which in part was undoubtedly caused by the church’s acoustic. However, the orchestra quickly improved and was soon playing with greater surety, energy, and vibrancy. The rhythmic quality of its playing was excellent, as was its ability to capture the delicacy and elegance of Handel’s score, which is often thinly orchestrated. In fact, some of the more successful passages came from airs in which individual instruments were given a prominent role as in the case of airs for Kyshliaruk in which the theorbo and cello shone. Naessens was attentive to the needs of the singers who were always given the necessary support, while the overall balance between soloists, orchestra, and choir was excellent.

It was not the perfect performance of Handel’s oratorio by any means, but it was a good performance, to which the audience responded enthusiastically with a standing ovation, and which on balance was probably deserved.



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