November 8, 2023

Princeton Pro Musica Opens 45th Season With Rarely-Heard Handel Oratorio

By Nancy Plum

When choruses choose to perform the oratorios of George Frideric Handel, it is usually the popular Messiah which draws in audiences. However, Handel composed close to 30 oratorios, essentially perfecting the genre when interest in Italian opera waned in 18th-century England. Sung in English, oratorios had great audience appeal, retaining the solo vocal fireworks popular in opera but adding complex choral numbers which served a narrative function and provided commentary on the action.

Handel looked to biblical sources for subject matter to create his familiar oratorios, with works based on the stories of Saul, Samson, and Judas Maccabeus. Lesser known is the 1748 Solomon, which depicts the life of the monarch of ancient Israel in 63 arias, recitatives, and choruses. Handel’s choral/orchestral works are tailor-made for the more than 100-member Princeton Pro Musica, which brought a production of Solomon to Richardson Auditorium this past Sunday afternoon. Led by Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan J. Brandau and joined by the period orchestra New York Baroque Incorporated and five vocal soloists, Pro Musica presented a spirited performance of Handel’s animated work.

Wealthy, wise and powerful, King Solomon ruled from approximately 970-931 BCE. For this oratorio, Handel used a libretto of select biblical accounts focusing on the relationship between Solomon and his Queen, the well-known tale of the King and the two mothers, and the narrative of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon’s realm. The sheer length of Solomon may have deterred ensembles from the challenging work, but for Sunday’s performance, Brandau pared the piece down to two-thirds of its original score, creating a three-part story which was easy to follow. Solomon is three short musical plays in one oratorio, and Pro Musica’s presentation retained the best of all Handel’s musical tricks — fiery arias, crisp orchestral playing, and joyous choruses which displayed the ensemble’s solid choral training.

One consistent aspect of Handel’s oratorios is how well the composer wrote for the voice. Solomon was scored for chorus and five soloists, with each soloist playing a major character and occasionally doubling up in a supporting role. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft sang the title role of King Solomon, drawing on an extensive background in early music. Unlike some of Handel’s operas, this mezzo-range role was composed for a female singer, and Craft arrived onstage ready to take charge of all three scenarios depicted. She sang with a smooth and rich sound and a voice that soared in the upper registers, continually demonstrating precise diction and delivering recitative verses with clarity.

In the key scene of Solomon and the two mothers, each claiming the same baby, Craft was joined by sopranos Sonya Headlam and Elisse Albian. As “First Woman,” Albain possessed a lyrical voice which sparkled in the faster-moving passages. She and Craft presented a particularly elegant “all is well” duet when Solomon ruled in her favor. Headlam was more vocally dramatic and also adept at the coloratura runs, as well as unnervingly convincing agreeing that Solomon’s suggestion that the baby be split in half was a good one. Headlam seemed to find particular joy in the runs of her arias, and her voice fit well with both Albian and Craft in their joint scenes.

Baritone Harrison Hintzsche performed several roles, first singing with a gentle sound as a Levite assuring the public that the Lord’s mercies will “forever last.” He displayed smooth vocal runs in a second aria toward the close of the work, expressing the narrative text well. Tenor Gregório Taniguchi rounded out the quintet of Baroque solo voices, singing with a light, clean sound and handling vocal runs well. All singers showed imaginative ornamentation to the closing lines of their arias, as well as attention to 18th-century musical detail.

As could be expected, the version of Solomon Brandau compiled for this performance featured the chorus in numbers which not only fit the narrative but also emphasized the ensemble’s choral precision. Princeton Pro Musica consistently demonstrated a clean choral sound with meticulous diction which carried well in the hall. The ensemble found the most dynamic contrast in a mournful Act III chorus of death and despair, followed by the text that “all is calm again.” Handel tended to close his oratorios with a chorus pronouncing a moral to the story, and in ending the oratorio, Pro Musica exhibited its trademark solid block choral sound in reminding the audience that “the fame of the just shall eternally last.”

New York Baroque Incorporated showed uniform attention to musical detail and dynamics throughout the performance, with graceful phrase directions and crisp endings to lines. Cellist Ezra Seltzer, bassist Wen Yang, organist Caitlyn Koester, and harpsichordist Elliot Figg provided a concrete continuo foundation to the recitatives, and oboists Andrew Blanke and Sarah Weiner played particularly elegant duet passages in the “Symphony” which opened Act III. Conducting without a baton, Brandau paced the substantial work well, taking an approach which was not too strenuous on the choristers and highlighted the soloists. Handel’s Solomon is a tour-de-force for all involved, and Pro Musica’s presentation created an afternoon of music that was refreshing to listen to and which held the audience’s attention well.