We are getting quite a generous helping of George Frideric Handel oratorios this holiday season, which is fine with me. In addition to the traditional performances of The Messiah, the Santa Barbara Master Chorale treated us to Israel in Egypt last weekend, and this Friday, the spectacularly gifted Michel Marc Gervais will lead an orchestra and the UCSB Chamber Choir he founded in scenes, arias and choruses from Handel’s Belshazzar (1745) and Solomon (1748).
The concert will begin at 8 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 21 E. Constance Ave. A requested donation of $15 for general admission and $7 for students will be collected at the door.
For those who just came in, the oratorio is a kind of sacred opera, sans costumes, sets and stage action. Handel switched to writing oratorios when the florid Italian operas he had been composing and producing began playing to half-empty houses, driving him into receivership.
Oratorios were much cheaper to produce, were chock full of choruses and the English ate them up (they still do). Because a performance of, say, The Messiah can be a deeply moving spiritual experience, the great success of Handel’s oratorios in England can give one an exaggerated sense of the religious feelings of the English people.
Montesquieu visited England during the first stages of Handel’s oratorio popularity there. “There is no religion in England,” he wrote. “If anyone mentions religion, people begin to laugh.” Religion is still a minority taste in the United Kingdom, but they love choral singing as much as ever.
Belshazzar, from 1745, two years after The Messiah, concerns the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great, which resulted in the freeing of the Jewish population from captivity.
Solomon, with a libretto attributed to Newburgh Hamilton, is a setting of several biblical episodes demonstrating the wisdom of the eponymous king of Israel. King Solomon is generally sung by an alto, his queen by a soprano. Sir Thomas Beecham was quite fond of this work, and prepared his own edition of it, restoring many of the “more than a dozen numbers of a purely secular nature,” as well as cutting out big chunks that he didn’t like.
“Indeed,” the brilliant baronet added, “in hardly any other of [Handel]’s great oratorios does the purely religious side of it play such a modest part.” Beecham had a baritone sing the title role.
— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at email@example.com.