Handel's "Esther," which concluded the University of Maryland's Handel Festival last night in the Memorial Chapel, is splendid music from its excellent overture to the long, sweeping final chorus with soloists, which is worthy to be compared with anything in "Messiah." But it is also a work of enormous historic importance -- the first oratorio composed by Handel to an English text. It is much closer in its structure to opera, which was the composer's main preoccupation until he was in his 50s, than it is to such later works as "Messiah" or "Israel in Egypt." But it gave him his most effective and enduring claim to the affection of the broad English public and led him to the work by which he is still best known.

The keystone for this performance was the superb University of Maryland chorus, but no expense was spared to match this group with the finest possible soloists. The list included four singers of national or international reputation: soprano Benita Valente, countertenor Rene' Jacobs, tenor Nigel Rogers and bass-baritone Donnie Ray Albert. All four sang impressively, though all but Jacobs had momentary vocal problems at one time or another. These were most serious for Rogers, who is a consummate master of Handelian style but did not have his voice completely under control until his third aria.

In terms of freedom from problems, Washington baritone Richard Dirksen was better than most of his famous colleagues, but his musical assignments were somewhat less demanding. The most memorable singing, except for the brilliant chorus, was that of Albert and Jacobs, but Valente's best moments were exquisite. One such moment came in the aria "Praise the Lord," for which director Paul Traver had thoughtfully engaged Dotian Carter to play the short but tricky harp obbligato--the only time that instrument is used in the entire score. At least this once, in his search for perfection, he found it.