Handel's great oratorio "Israel in Egypt," the final item in this year's Maryland Handel Festival, began 17 minutes late yesterday afternoon. "There will be a short delay," a festival official announced. "We don't quite have everybody backstage yet."

He did not mention that the leading soprano, Julianne Baird, had earlier been taken away in handcuffs after a brush with authority in a parking area. He didn't really need to; some of those present had witnessed the incident, and the news spread quickly through the audience.

An employe of the campus police force charged that Baird had pushed her during an argument about parking in a restricted area. Baird, in turn, claimed that she had been pushed back into her car when she tried to leave it. When she did leave, she said, in order to look for a festival official, she "just brushed against" the campus police deputy. A spokesman for the force, Corp. Cassie Atwell, declined to identify the deputy.

According to Baird, while she went into the chapel to find help, the deputy called a campus police officer, who handcuffed her, took her to the police station, charged her with assault and threatened to arrest a festival employe who tried to intervene.

"When I came out of the building, the police officer began to scream at me," Baird said. "I covered my ears, and then he handcuffed me. They would at no time let me explain ... I could have a criminal record from this, which is amazing."

Atwell said it had not been decided whether charges would be brought against Baird.

With Baird in the car was her 3-month-old daughter Jessica Alexandra, in the care of a baby sitter. Baird was rescued from police custody through the intervention of festival director Paul Traver and University of Maryland President John Toll.

Baird, one of America's leading interpreters of early music, did not show up to sing until Part 3 of the oratorio. Until then, her part was sung quite effectively by Lorraine Hunt, the second soprano -- presumably sight-reading, since the music is hardly in the standard repertoire.

When she did begin to sing, Baird looked somewhat upset but sounded fine: pure and sweet in tone, accurate in pitch and phrasing, idiomatic and precise in her ornamentation of the vocal line. Only a bit of tentativeness in her dynamics might have suggested that not long before she had been handcuffed in the campus police station.

Even without police action, "Israel in Egypt" is one of Handel's most spectacular works. There are a half dozen soloists, but the chorus is the hero, as narrator of the exodus from Egypt and as a musical embodiment of the people of Israel.

The most spectacular sequence is a series of numbers depicting the plagues that struck Egypt as punishment for keeping Israel in bondage. In Handel's score, water turns vividly into blood; frogs hop around, and the music is infested with flies, lice and locusts; hailstones bounce among the instruments of the orchestra, and the music depicts "a thick darkness over all the land, even darkness which might be felt." When the chorus sings, "Egypt was glad when they departed," it is easy to see why.

But the musical climax comes in the massive and masterly chorus when the Red Sea is parted, the people of Israel stroll through, then the waters come crashing in on Pharaoh's army until "there was not one of them left."

The final section, "Moses' Song," is an exultant self-congratulation at this victory. For modern sensibilities, the text may have a surplus of chest-pounding "my god can whip your god" sentiment, but this kind of ceremoniously fierce music was one of Handel's great strengths and it was done with power and finesse by the University of Maryland Chorus and the Smithsonian Concerto Grosso with Paul Traver conducting. Among the male soloists, countertenor Michael Chance had the most work to do and did it with distinction. Tenor Patrick Romano sang expressively and once or twice with perhaps a slight excess of vibrato. Baritones Ned Barth and Charles Robert Stephens were pillars of strength. But the chorus, exulting in the chapel's superb acoustics, was the most impressive element in the program.

"Israel in Egypt" is always a busy assignment for a chorus, but this one was even more so than usual because the text included the rarely performed Part 1, "The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph" -- gently solemn music that contrasts neatly with the wide-screen, technicolor chorus that come later. It worked beautifully, and though it extended the music's length quite a bit, it should be heard more often.