The Cantate Chamber Singers number a mere 40, but conductor Gisele Becker has trained them to sound like a much bigger ensemble. That vocal heft comes in handy in a piece like Handel's "Israel in Egypt," where choruses outnumber solo passages three to one.
As Saturday's lively performance of this oratorio at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda demonstrated, Handel tricked out his score with every Technicolor effect in the book. The 10 plagues of Egypt play like an extended concerto for orchestra, with frogs leaping between first and second violins, hailstones pitter-pattering in little staccato patterns and rivers of blood branching into fugal tributaries. Becker's pickup orchestra (modern instruments minding their period manners) played to maximum coloristic effect.
The choir wept and exulted, knocked off florid coloratura and lent a nicely creepy edge to the composer's surprising dissonances, all with polish and scrupulous sectional balancing. I only wish Becker had trimmed the pauses between choruses that form natural sequences. Their interlinked texts and cumulative emotional trajectories demand tighter continuity of musical thought.
Roger Isaacs, boasting a gorgeous countertenor, was the best of the Cantate soloists--no mean feat considering he had to stay poker-faced while singing "Their land brought forth frogs."