Although it was vastly popular during Handel's lifetime, his oratorio "Judas Maccabeus" is far from his best. However, there are grand passages in all three of its acts, and by the time he has moved into the second act, all you need are topnotch soloists, a vibrant chorus and orchestra, and you cannot miss the thrills.
All of these were on hand Saturday night in the Kennedy Center when Stephen Simon conducted the work in his ongoing Handel Festival. The soloists in particular, encouraged by Simon's realization of the music's dramatic power, kept things moving in the cornier passages and turned on dazzling brilliance in the great moments.
If bass Justino Diaz was the first to make the big hit, that is because the famous aria, "Arm, arm ye brave!" is Handel's first big gun. The second act, however, turned into a procession of hit tunes sung with mounting intensity by Australian soprano Joan Carden, Canadian contralto Maureen Forester, and tenor Seth McCoy of this country.
The sumptuously blond Forester, looking about as little like an "Israelitish Man" as you can imagine, was the champion in probing the many recitatives for their most touching meanings. And in her grand aria, "So rapid thy course is," she tossed off technical demonstrations like a fast car on a test track.
Right with her every step of the way, finally bringing the house down with her florid singing in "From mighty kings," Carden won herself special praise. Their duets were inflammatory.
McCoy, who sounded for a time as if he were saving himself, let it all out in "Sound an alarm!" It was more than enough.Diaz, meanwhile, had added to his splendid opener with a magnificent "The Lord worketh wonders."
All this time the Norman Scribner-trained chorus, with Scribner backing the fine orchestra at the organ, was singing Handel as he should always sound. Martin Isepp's harpsichord was the essence of style and baroque brilliance.