Plague and pestilence may not be the most savory topics for an oratorio, but they are very much at the core of George Frideric Handel's "Israel in Egypt." With a Biblical text based on passages from Exodus and the Psalms, the two-act work recounts the scourge dispatched by Jehovah against the Egyptians as punishment for their enslavement of the Hebrews and the Israelites' subsequent flight into the promised land. Last evening at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the Oratorio Society of Washington, under the baton of music director Robert Shafer, gave an exhilarating performance of Handel's religious drama.
The plot is painted on a broad canvas, with the emphasis placed on communal as opposed to individual expression. Handel conveys this concept by entrusting most of the vocal portions to the chorus (so few are the airs, that they seem to have been included as an afterthought). They function much like the chorus in ancient Greek drama by narrating and, in effect, dominating the story.
The Oratorio Society Chorus majestically carried off the various musical demands. Part I's "He sent a thick darkness" was a study in delicacy as the singers declaimed the implicit doom in hushed tones marked by unusual modulations and word painting. By contrast, "Who is like unto Thee, O Lord?" from Part II possessed grand reverential sweeps with numerous pauses; their rendering of "The people shall hear," blending insistent dotted rhythms with smooth legato phrasing, was as glorious as one is likely to hear.
In spite of its serious nature, "Israel in Egypt" has moments of levity. Alto soloist Gretchen Greenfield brought grace and light humor in her traversal of Handel's "Their land brought forth frogs," probably the least of the evils inflicted upon the Egyptians.