The overture swiftly shifts to dramatic music, both tensely animated and gravely majestic. The first singing is some mourning yet forceful dirge, a call for future struggle and freedom, a successor to dead Mattathias. The story is told by an Israelian man and an Israelian woman: the man is a mezzo-soprano and the woman a soprano. A very feminine story telling though the mezzo-soprano expresses some deep nearly subterranean contradiction, the frustration of captivity, the death of a leader, the still unclear future. The chorus says it all: "With words that weep and tears that speak", beautiful double metaphor and oxymoron. Simon taking over the recitative gives a male profundity to the call and the next aria of the Israelian woman balances the vision between somberness and hope, the hope of salvation from God. The binary style of the language is Shakespearian and very effective when amplified by the music: "And Grant a leader bold and brave, If not to conquer, born to save" And the ternary language of the coming fight is disruptive, as it should be: "In defence of your nation, religion and laws". The whole British nationalism and state of law invested in that religious opera. And this ternary language is amplified at once by Judas Maccabaeus: "Call forth / thy pow'rs, / my soul, // and dare // The con- / flict of un- / -equal war." And this double ternary period (articulated on a in-between iamb) is of course Solomon's number, a basic Jewish symbol, a basic symbol of the greatest British literature and art, the disruption brought by the fight for freedom, a success-bound fight borne by courage, longing and devotion. And this Jewish symbolism is then amplified by the Israelian woman who gives a recitative, then a first aria and a second aria, and the Israelian man comes with a recitative, an aria, and a duet of the two to close up the symbolism. And this long moment in the opera is dedicated to "liberty", introduced as "sweet liberty" by Judas and then amplified by the two Israelian man and woman as "ever-smiling liberty" and five mention of this liberty which makes six with Judas's, thus endorsed by the Israelians as their champion, and blessed by a quadruple binary chorus: "Lead on, / lead on! // Judah / disdains /// The gal- / -ling load // of hos- / -tile chains." That quadruple binary pattern is absolute equilibrium in Shakespeare, and it makes an octagon, the symbol of the resurrection and second coming of Jesus Christ. Handel is a perfect Shakespearian who turns Shakespeare's linguistic music into pure music. The second act starts with a music that is so powerful we know the expected miracle has taken place and that music is based on the hyper dynamic rhythm of a trochee followed by an iamb creating a maelstrom with the inversion of stresses de-multiplied by the music itself. The victory was won and everyone is celebrating it and the newly re-conquered liberty. Handel takes some fine deep pleasure at playing on some iambic rhythm like in Judas's mouth "How vain is man, who boasts in fight" and his playing on the irregularity of the next line makes it great though imperfect: "The valour of gigantic might!" His musical emphasis on "gan" rebalances the uneven rhythm that could only be saved into iamb-anapest-anapest by moving the stress onto "gi", which he refuses to do. The music salvages a bad line and makes it hyper-powerful. That's when he brings the Messenger to announce the bad news of the counter attack of the Egyptians. This moment is crucial in the opera and Handel had kept the male alto in store for it. That male alto brings a voice that stands at odds with all others and that brings the bad news. Simon adds some more musical magic in his aria when he transform the bad line "His glory to raise", iamb-anapest, into a heroic moment. But he can also make a prodigy with a triple binary line like: "and call the brave, // and on- / -ly brave, / around" which is a perfect Solomon's number leaning on the quadruple first half. We get both the balance of the iambic rhythm and the tremendous dynamism of that triple iambic rhythm, a dynamism that leads directly to a military mobilization against the new attack. The second act comes to an end with a declaration of faith in God both extremely powerful and joyful as if the faith in God of the Israelians was able to bring anyone through any challenge. But the third act starts with restraint that also sounds like somber depth, the depth that comes from the consciousness of being one with God and his creation, emphasized by the somber mezzo-soprano voice. The battle is raging and they are expecting the good news of course any time and dreading the bad one any time too. It is the male alto voice of the messenger that brings the news, and it is good. The voice expresses so well the break in the fabric of history and the relief of the people. The celebration of the victory is very tamed and even docile in a way with solos, duets and choruses on joyful airs but with no ostentation, at most a few blaring moments of trumpets and drums, slightly more triumphant towards the end. Judas will bring the real formula of that victorious heroism: Eleazar who "triumph'd in a glorious death". This is nearly a cliché in English culture with Nelson as the archetype of that hero for two centuries. The final touch is given by the representative of Rome who brings the support of the Senate, thus completing the victory. And the opera closes on some praise of the victory but maybe slightly too mundane and too contained and moderate.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID