live reviews; Handel: Jeptha Westminster Abbey; Atalanta St John's, Smith Sq

Thursday 26 June 1997 23:02

London's planning committees must secretly cherish the work of the Luftwaffe and the efficiency of German high explosives. When pressed to justify the conversion of yet another venerable town house into offices, planners need only mention wartime destruction to soothe their consciences and claim a preservation prize. The Brook Street home of German-born composer George Frideric Handel, in which he composed Messiah and many of his greatest works, managed to survive the blitz (and the brief residency of Jimi Hendrix) yet narrowly escaped the full blast from a recent redevelopment scheme proposed by a leading insurance company. The Handel House Trust has raised the funds necessary to buy the lease, intending to restore the composer's rooms and open a museum and recital room to the public in 1999. But cash is still required to match the project's Lottery grant, and Handelians are being asked to help save the composer's house for the nation.

Westminster Abbey, in which Handel often worked and now lies buried, was the appropriate venue for the last in a series of "Sing for Handel" concerts to benefit the Handel House Museum; Jeptha, the composer's final oratorio, served to highlight just why the Brook Street campaigners deserve success. The work's emotional depth, as powerful as anything in Handel's operatic output, demands an intelligent, expressive team of soloists, conditions amply satisfied here by Emma Kirkby, Michael Chance, Della Jones, David Wilson-Johnson and, outstanding in the title-role, Nigel Robson.

In the late 1980s, Robson memorably explored Jeptha's character with John Eliot Gardiner, his Westminster Abbey account proving even more focused in its contrast between the Israelite leader's early heroics and his later grief-stricken airs. "His mighty arm with sudden blow", confirmed Robson as the right man for the job, robust of voice and Pears-like in delivery of words, while "Open thy marble jaws, O tomb" revealed the courage of the tenor's convictions to sing as close to the edge of silent prayer as technique would allow. Martin Neary's well-judged speeds and crisp playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment allowed the drama to flow, helped by incisive, eloquent singing by the men and boys of the Abbey Choir.

Although doubt remains about the future of Handel's house, his music clearly has lost none of its power to attract large audiences, with Jeptha doing good box-office business and, a few days earlier, Midsummer Opera encouraging a full house to St John's, Smith Square for a staged performance of the undervalued pastoral opera Atalanta. David Roblou's spirited yet highly disciplined leadership from the harpsichord and the playing of his Avison Ensemble extracted the best from Handel's colourful score, their work complemented by Alan Privett's sensitive staging and stylish choreography by Barry Grantham. Thin verging on the anorexic may be its plot, but Atalanta offers up adequate compensation in its musical range and here supplied ideal material for the excellent young South African soprano Sandra Ford to display a refined coloratura technique and genuine acting talent as Meleagro. After an untypically slow start, Patricia Rozario tapped into the expressive heart of Atalanta's' "Lassa! ch'io t'ho perduta" and matched Ford's agility and grace in their final-act duet. Andrew Stewart

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