MUSIC / THE PROMS: On borrowed time: Nicholas Williams finds new life in Handel's oratorio Deborah, revived at the Proms

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The Independent Culture
On Sunday, the Kings' Consort, the Choir of New College Oxford and the Choristers of Salisbury Cathedral breathed new life into Deborah, the second of Handel's oratorios. Deborah has long been rebuked by scholars for its flagrant self- quotation and clumsy libretto. But Robert King, the Consort's founder and conductor has had the sense to remember that Handel turns simple ingredients into objects of splendour and elegance. However rich in musical self-quotation, and however feebly the text reads as literature, in performance the work reveals that grandiose pacing and design that we call Handelian.

The story is the old one of Baal versus Jehovah; the plot, from Judges, revolving around a female prophet, a squabble between the Canaanites and Israelites, and a nasty incident with a tent peg. Textwise, the characters are as flat as traffic signs - God-fearing hero, God-taunting villain, priest of Canaan and so on - and platitudes are the main textual fodder. It's left to the music to bring the characters to life. No matter that the score contains large chunks of the 'Fireworks' music, and arias and choruses from The King shall rejoice, the Brockes Passion and the Dixit Dominus. It is the actual variety of the recitatives, solos and choruses that defines and develops the emotional thrust.

It also gives splendid opportunities for the singers. Yvonne Kenny, who has already taken the role of Handel's Cleopatra at Sydney, sang Deborah with a soprano tone that was clean and pure as a trumpet. She had some thrilling moments - not least an impassioned slanging match with the Canaanite leader, Sisera, over the claims of their rival Gods. As the heathen chieftain, Catherine Denley was every bit her match; her lowest register brimming over with scorn and menace. The hero Barak's father, Abinoam, meanwhile, was played by the excellent bass-baritone Michael George, who sang the Lord's praises in swatches of virtuosic doggerel. 'Swift inundation / Of desolation / Pour on the nation / Of Judah's foes,' he sang at one point, courtesy of librettist Samuel Humphreys. No wonder the old man seemed permanently gloomy. In contrast his son, sung by the incomparable James Bowman, turned out to be a meekling. A 'battle' aria, threatening to 'float the plains with slaughter' was a precious little invention in fast minuet rhythm, full of soothing baroque flutes and chamber organ. Presumably there's no need for aggressive poses when God is on your side.

Whether as priests, Israelites or Canaanites the chorus took things in their stride. Re-creating the 1734 performance conditions, they used all male voices and were accompanied by a prodigiously large orchestra.