Imagine, if you can, the story of Esther as the basis of a theatrical collaboration between Racine and Handel. Both addressed the subject – Racine in 1689 as a poetic drama and Handel in 1718 as an oratorio (or masque) – but it’s taken the two men 280 years to meet and blend their approaches to this classical biblical tale. The midwives who made it possible are director Eric Fraad, a Joseph Papp protégé, and harpsichordist-conductor Bradley Brookshire, a leading light of New York’s rather lonely original-instrument scene. The result was unveiled recently by Millennial Arts Productions at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side – the site, appropriately enough, of the oldest synagogue in New York City.
Inevitably, Racine’s text and Handel’s score had to be drastically abridged, especially since Fraad and Brookshire have devised an elaborate framework for the action, one that involves personal appearances by dramatist, composer, and their royal patrons. As a prologue, Racine and Louis XIV are discovered casting the drama with the students of the all-girl academy at Maison St. Cyr, and later we encounter Handel at the Duke of Chandos’s estate preparing the singers for the first performance of his masque. Still later, the two men meet and bond during a balletic dream sequence, as the story of Esther, Mordecai, King Ahasuerus, and the evil Haman unfolds around them, enacted by a double cast of actors and singers. Beyond that, faux Gregorian chant and bits of music by other composers – Lully, Moreau, and Couperin – are pasted in whenever nothing by Handel was available to do the job.
Don’t ask me how, but the whole crazy mix works, although I doubt whether anyone would be able to follow it without constant referral to Fraad’s detailed scene-by-scene description of the action. The exuberance and sheer theatricality of the entire production certainly helped to sustain continuity and clarity. Faint-hearted performers would be disastrous in this mannerist exercise, but the cast, responding to Fraad’s urgent direction, went right to the core of their characters while communicating the tragic kernel of the story: Esther may have triumphed and Haman is destroyed, but the anti-Semitic evil unleashed on the house of Benjamin lives on.
There was one knockout voice onstage: countertenor Bejun Mehta, who sang Mordecai’s florid arias with tonal opulence, brilliant coloratura authority, and musical sophistication. Mehta, distantly related to the conductor, had a brief flurry of celebrity fifteen years ago as a boy soprano, and since then he has tested various careers, as a cellist, a conductor, an award-winning record producer, and a scholar of German literature. This formidable talent should really major once again in singing, and perhaps now he will – next season, Mehta takes a lead role in the City Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope. Scarcely less impressive was Indira Mahajan’s strongly centered, richly textured soprano, eloquently put to use as the singing incarnation of Esther. The period-instrument orchestra had occasional problems with coordination and intonation, possibly because of its awkward position at the far end of a rectangular performing space – a small price to pay, considering how the ancient sanctuary itself contributed so effectively to this too busy but always imaginative conflation.