Tobias Cole is one of the great treasures of artistic life in Canberra. A much-loved counter-tenor, conductor and teacher of considerable accomplishment, he has now also become a producer of baroque opera. A year or so ago, he decided to form a company called Handel in the Theatre, its aim being to present Handel’s operas and oratorios in English to contemporary audiences.

I wish I had experienced Cole’s inaugural production last year: The Vow, an adaptation of Handel’s last opera Jeptha (1751). This year, Cole has swung back to Handel’s first ‘opera’ Esther, which began life as a masque (1718), then appeared as an opera (1720) and was revised as a concert oratorio in three acts (1732). Last year’s production seems to have addressed many of the issues I have with this year’s production. By all accounts, it was played quite effectively in contemporary street dress, without props or costumes, and with a small orchestra onstage.

David Greco, Janet Todd and Tobias Cole in Esther. Photograph © Hou Leong

Truth be told, there are really only two ways to present Handel operas. There are the sumptuously extravagant, over-the-top inflations like Barrie Kosky’s Saul, voted the best production at the recent Adelaide Festival in March this year. Then there’s the pared-back minimalist approach, like some of the productions of Peter Sellars: a little web-searching will find his Theodora (Glyndebourne, 1996) and his Orlando (American Repertory Theater, 1990).

There is also a middle path vacillating perilously between these extremes, a kind of concert-in-costume, stock-in-trade for amateur companies and end-of-year productions of conservatorium opera schools. Unfortunately for this reviewer, this is the path Cole chose for Esther. It was not just a budgetary decision, but an aesthetic one.

Fundamentally, productions of Handel operas stand or fall on the quality of the music-making. They require virtuosic leads, a full-blooded chorus and an orchestra of myriad continuo hues. In this production, the four leads were mostly very good indeed.

The best singing came from baritone David Greco in the hiss-boo role of the conniving Prime Minister, Haman. An experienced professional opera singer, Greco has a powerful voice and a commanding stage presence; he is a joy to hear and watch. Similarly, contralto Sally-Anne Russell as Mordecai, an advisor to the King of Persia, made the most of her small pants role, producing a warm and engaging tone, when she could be heard above the orchestra. In minor roles as Israelites, Alison Richardson and Keren Dalzell sang with a sense of period style and flair, qualities that emerged only rarely in this instance.

David Greco. Photograph © Hou Leong

The vocal stature of any production of Esther rests with its two leads. Toby Cole himself sang the counter-tenor role of Ahasuerus, the King of Persia, who discards his first wife in favour of Esther, a Jewess and niece of Mordecai. With the strain of this entire enterprise weighing largely on his shoulders, Cole’s voice tired as the evening wore on, particularly noticeable in the melismatic roulades Handel demands of his singers.

In the title role, Janet Todd was a very effective and admirable Esther. Her nimble, florid runs approached excellence throughout. She is a star to watch, and it would be good to hear her in other repertoire too.

The chorus was a motley crew of a dozen figures, barely able to provide flesh to Handel’s choral body. In the pit, Brett Weymark struggled to produce both agility and sustained texture from his thin band of ten players; there was little by way of keyboard continuo colours and very little sense of legato line.

The idea of placing a 32-voice chorus and a trio of trumpets in balconies (and a diminutive timpani player on stage) was an effective coup de theatre. It lifted the delivery of the two thrilling Coronation Anthems, including an early version of Zadok the Priest at the opening of the second act.

Whereas the 70-minute first act was unmitigated doom and gloom, the 45-minute second act was light and triumphant. Even the King of Persia adopted a more comic persona, not always to good effect. Throughout the production, the King was assisted by the mute figure of a young assistant. This was Marcel Cole, the 16-year-old dancer-son of Tobias Cole, about to travel overseas to study dance.

Nearly all the shortfalls of this otherwise admirable enterprise result from the choice of venue. The Canberra Playhouse has always seemed to me adequate for spoken word productions, but is a truly appalling place for music. Its acoustic is as dull as a coffin. Singers, particularly Handel singers, need a place where their voices can soar and glow in the stratosphere. In the Canberra Playhouse, they die the moment they open their mouths. For years, Canberrans have been asking their territory’s government: where is our mid-size concert hall?

Esther. Photograph © Hou Leong

Costs and budgets are also a concern for under-funded, largely self-supported enterprises like Handel in the Theatre. Many would argue that music must be the foremost budget priority. Increase spending on the orchestra and chorus. Away with threadbare sets and costumes, away with the Dalcroze-like emoting of choreography. Would it not be wonderful to see this nascent company be given funds to engage a leading young theatre/opera director to produce an opera in contemporary dress? Instead of cumbersome sets and bare theatre lighting, an imaginative lighting plot and perhaps even computerized images could fill the visual space, as seen here in a recent production of L’Orfeo at the ANU School of Music’s vast Llewellyn Hall.

There is much to admire in productions of this nature. Civic pride requires that the drive, enthusiasm and commitment of the community must be encouraged. At the same time, leaders of these companies should be encouraged to think long and hard about what they produce and how their productions are presented. In the case of Handel, one cannot escape the most fundamental consideration: music must always be the first priority.