At center, from left, Robin Johannsen, Nicholas McGegan and Nicholas Phan perform in Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale’s “Judas Maccabaeus.” (Courtesy Frank Wing)

Philharmonia Baroque’s ‘Judas Maccabaeus’ a triumph

Soloists, chorus shine in oratorio telling tale of Jewish victory

Handel’s oratorio “Judas Maccabaeus” isn’t performed anywhere near as often as his December warhorse “The Messiah,” but Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale’s scintillating performance of it Thursday at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre — the first of four in the Bay Area this weekend — points to why it deserves more frequent presentations.

Extensive recitatives of “Judas” may have diluted its appeal, but, thanks to its theme of victorious Jewish forces in battle (as well as the Act 3 celebration of the Jewish Feast of Lights, not to be confused with Hanukkah’s miracle of lights) the work nonetheless could plausibly be associated with Hanukkah in the same way “Messiah” is with Christmas.

Tenor Nicholas Phan in the lead role and baritone William Berger as Judas’ younger brother Simon shined as the oratorio’s most heroic figures.

Phan’s Act 1 airs “Call forth thy pow’rs” and “No unhallow’d desire” gave energetic tastes of his vocal heft, and again in the vocal leaps that gracefully came back down to earth in his Act 2 air “How vain is man.” Later in the same act, he soared majestically, accompanied by trumpets and timpani in the rousing air “Sound an alarm.”

For his part,

All her duets with Johannsen were divine.

Conductor Nicholas McGegan adroitly led the chorus and superb orchestra in the appropriately somber overture “Mourn ye afflicted children” and the alternately stirring and subdued Act 2 opening “Fall’n is the foe.”

The chorus’ famous Act 3 “See, the conqu’ring hero comes!” was magnificent.

REVIEW

Judas Maccabaeus

Presented by Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale

Where: First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, BerkeleyFirst United Methodist Church, 625 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto

When: 4 p.m. today7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6

Tickets: $37 to $130

Contact: (415) 392-4400, www.philharmonia.org

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