Arts & Events

Sherezade Panthaki Stars in Obscure Handel Oratorio

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday December 24, 2017 - 10:59:00 AM

Under the leadership of Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has consistently championed the music of George Friedrich Handel, bringing us this composer’s operas, oratorios, and instrumental music in live performances and recordings. Now, in four performances throughout the Bay Area, December 14-17, they have given us Handel’s 1744 oratorio Joseph and His Brethren. A work rarely performed these days, Joseph and His Brethren was extremely popular in Handel’s day, receiving ten performances in England, where it placed fourth, behind The Messiah, Samson, and Judas Maccabeas, in number of performances given in the composer’s lifetime.  

Based on the last thirteen chapters of the Book of Genesis, Joseph and His Brothers was set to a problematic libretto by Anglican vicar, the Rev. James Miller. Neglecting the back story, Miller opted to begin his libretto with Joseph, the second youngest son of Hebrew patriarch Jacob, in an Egyptian prison. Following a brief Overture we hear Joseph’s aria-and-recitative, “Be firm, my soul,” that bears similarities with Florestan’s great prison aria in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Like Florestan, Joseph affirms his innocence, bemoans his unjust incarceration, then resigns himself that Heaven has its secret ways to bring things to a wise end. In these Philharmonia Baroque performances, the role of Joseph was elegantly sung by mezzo-soprano Diana Moore, whose burnished low notes resounded darkly while her shimmering high notes shone brightly. 

Joseph is summoned by the Egyptian Pharaoh and correctly interprets the Pharaoh’s dream of seven fatted cattle and seven lean cattle as foretelling an equal number of coming years of feast and famine. Joseph advises the Egyptians to store up foodstuffs during the feast years to supply them with sustenance during the lean years. The grateful Pharaoh, sung by baritone Philip Cutlip, appoints Joseph, an Israelite, to a top position as his right-hand man, and gives him the Egyptian name Zaphnath. 

Although Diana Moore as Joseph occupies center stage throughout this oratorio, soprano Sherezade Panthaki as Asenath, Joseph’s love interest/wife, simply stole the show. Panthaki was absolutely sensational, singing with sumptuous tone, extraordinarily flexible and apparently effortless coloratura, and impeccable diction. With a singer of the caliber of Sherezade Panthaki in the role of Asenath, the convoluted story of Joseph’s troubled relations with his eleven brothers simply took second place in Handel’s oratorio to the love-story involving Joseph and Asenath. For Asenath, it is a case of love at first sight when she meets Joseph, as she reveals in her opening aria, the soliloquy “O lovely youth, with wisdom crown’d,” which is soon followed by her acknowledgment of burgeoning love, “I feel a spreading flame within my veins.” Joseph, for his part, wastes no time in asking Asenath’s father, the Egyptian High Priest, for Asenath’s hand in marriage. Soon the loving couple are singing a sweet love duet thanking Heaven for their mutual felicity, accompanied by two warbling flutes. Act I closes with a Chorus of Egyptians singing the praises of Zaphnath and Asenath. As they waft the news “from pole to pole,” they descend an octave from first “pole” to second “pole.” 

In Act II, Egypt is now experiencing the lean years, but in following Joseph’s lead they have stored up provisions and enjoy plentiful foodstuffs. Asenath rejoices that the Pharaoh and all Egyptians sing grateful praise of her husband. However, she confides to Phanor, sung here by mezzo-soprano Abigail Levis, that something seems to trouble Joseph/Zaphnath. Perhaps, says Phanor, he regrets his native land. Meanwhile, as a result of yet another back story not included in Rev. Miller’s libretto, Joseph’s ten half-brothers have visited Egypt, not recognized Zaphnath as their half-brother Joseph, whom they abandoned long ago in a pit menaced by wild beasts. The brothers have returned to Israel, leaving behind one brother, Simeon, who is held as hostage by Zaphnath/Joseph. Simeon, robustly sung by tenor Nicholas Phan, who also doubles later as Judah, bemoans his incarceration yet worries over his share of guilt in having seemingly abandoned Joseph to death.  

In a convoluted plot full of weird twists and turns, in Act III the brothers return to Egypt, Zaphnath frees Simeon but now incarcerates Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son and Joseph’s brother by the same mother. The role of Benjamin is sung by bright-voiced soprano Gabrielle Haigh. Meanwhile, Asenath endeavors to relieve her husband of his fears for his brothers and fellow Israelites. She vows to ask Pharaoh for permission to invite the famine-ravished Israelites to come share in Egypt’s bounty. As she devises this plan, Asenath launches into the extraordinarily difficult coloratura aria, “Prophetic raptures swell my breast.” Here Sherezade Panthaki was absolutely astounding. Her vocal pyrotechnics exhibited a seemingly unlimited range that included dark-hued low notes and electrifying high notes. This remarkable vocal display simply brought the house down, as the audience exploded in applause and shouts of “Brava!” 

The half-brothers prepare to depart for Canaan but plead with Zaphnath to allow Benjamin to return to see his aged father. Without revealing his identity as Joseph, Zaphnath slyly tests his half-brothers. Impressed and moved by their loyalty to Benjamin as well as to their father, Zaphnath eventually reveals that he is their long-lost brother Joseph. Amid general amazement, the oratorio closes not with a celebration of the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, but father with yet another love-duet from Asenath and Joseph. Finally, the Chorus praises Heaven and sings Hallelujah!  

Throughout Handel’s Joseph and His Brethren, conductor Nicholas McGegan led his period-instrument orchestra in a rhythmically pulsating score, while the Philharmonia Chorale, led by Bruce Lamott, sang effectively as Egyptian and/or Israelite choirs. These performances of Joseph and His Brethren were recorded and a CD will be released at a later date sometime in 2018.