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Handel, 'Brockes Passion' London Handel Festival at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, Tuesday 12th March. (ME)

The Royal College of Music has of late become, for me, one of the three London venues where I feel most at home, since each performance there is always awaited with the expectation of the highest musical standards, allied to the unique thrill of hearing some of the most promising young voices of today. This rare event, a performance of Handel's 'Brockes Passion,' was presented in the college's Britten Theatre in association with the London Handel Festival, and was a somewhat austere delight, but a great one.

Those who cannot hear the narrative of Christ's Passion and Death without thinking of Bach might be surprised to learn that Handel set Brockes' version of the story to music in around 1716, some eight years before the 'St. John Passion,' and although Handel's work cannot be said to possess the same intensity and musical sophistication of the Bach Passions, it is nevertheless a work of great interest, mainly for its robust, highly dramatic arias and unusual framework. Brockes uses an Evangelist to tell the story, not in secco recitative but broadly rhyming lines, and the other characters are divided between the story's participants such as Jesus and Peter, and a group of Greek-chorus like commentators led by three 'Daughters of Zion.' Handel's setting is even more theatrical than that of Bach, with solo passages where individual characters enact moments of crisis in their lives, very much in the manner of the composer's operas. The other major element is the moving chorales which are based on Lutheran hymn tunes, giving a sense of universality to the drama.

The overwhelming impression one takes from this production is the absolute, austere, devout seriousness with which the students perform, and one cannot help but be moved by their sincerity and commitment. Visually, the set is a simple one with a clear ecclesiastical framework, and the main interest is supplied by the costumes, in tones of cream, lilac, green and rust for the 'Chorus,' and stark primary colours for the major characters. When the assembled company sang the first of the chorales, I was reminded of a ground-breaking production by the RSC of Miller's 'The Crucible,' which began with the singing of a Lutheran hymn before we were plunged into the world of the play, and this beginning was similarly involving; indeed, during all the chorales, one almost had to resist the impulse to join in.

The very young company have obviously approached the piece with absolute commitment, and it shows in every gesture, every line, every expression, but nowhere more so than in the exceptional assumption of the role of the leading 'Daughter of Zion' by Claire Surman. This very fine young soprano has everything; she is graceful in presence and dignified in bearing, and her countenance expresses sorrow and sympathy in a truly moving way. She sings the part superbly, with strikingly clear declamation of the narratives and vivid singing of the arioso passages - this is obviously a singer to watch.

The difficult part of Jesus was taken by James Harrison, a fine baritone whose treasurable assumption of Starveling in the college's production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' already gave promise of an interesting future. On this occasion he began nervously, and his first aria was affected by some rather choppy phrasing, but he recovered to give an honest portrayal of a part which is nearly impossible to play, singing with fervour and precise musicianship. He was ably partnered by the dramatically convincing Peter of Andrew Kennedy, another young singer who made a strong impression in the MSND with his mellifluously sung Lysander. In this difficult role, Andrew showed once more that he is a tenor whose career will be one to follow with interest, since he performed his challenging music, especially the aria after the betrayal, with a confidence and musicality beyond his years; his voice has an exciting edge to it, and his phrasing is already very polished.

Every member of the cast played their part with real sincerity both in singing and acting, from the magisterial Evangelist of Robert Murray to the commanding Caiphas of Siôn Goronwy, another MSND singer who made a distinct impression, and the London Handel Orchestra, under the seemingly ageless Denys Darlow, played with real verve - the continuo was an absolute joy from start to finish. As the whole company sang the final line 'O endless Love and Passion' with such moving grace I felt I wanted to hear it all again.

Melanie Eskenazi

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