The end of the 2013 Melbourne concert year was so dominated by the spectacular performances of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung that many other worthy performances slipped under the radar. Ironically, reviewer Heather Leviston went to more Melbourne Ring performances than anyone we know yet still found time for this annual MSO performance and a reflection on the two great composers ….
“It was perhaps inevitable that comparisons would be made between two giants of the opera world: Wagner and Handel. Approximately one hundred years separate the first performance of Handel’s most famous work and the birth of Richard Wagner. Finding that the staging of opera was far too expensive and lacking Wagner’s eventual level of sponsorship, Handel abandoned that form in favour of oratorio while retaining much of the drama inherent in opera.
More important than their exceptional ambitions as entrepreneurs was their ability to reach the hearts and minds of generations who have venerated the landmark works of both composers to the point of addiction. I was not alone in being inspired to find links between the two events. In his pre-concert talk, Professor Peter Tregear alluded to the way Wagner and Handel both drew upon mythic elements as a means of bringing us to a closer understanding of humanity. Handel’s bass-baritone declaims, “Behold, I tell you a mystery” and we are taken into a mystical realm of resurrection and hope. It is not necessary to be a Christian to find spiritual enrichment in Handel’s Messiah or a pagan (or Nazi for that matter) to be transported by Wagner’s Ring.
The almost capacity audience that filled Hamer Hall to hear the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus would have found much to nourish and uplift the spirit in a version that relied on an unusually pared down orchestra. In addition to the bulk of the recitatives being accompanied by a continuo line of cello and harpsichord, played by conductor Ottavio Danone, several of the arias featured a quartet of the principal string players and sometimes the solo violin of Wilma Smith. This economical use of the strings resulted in moments of great beauty as a filigree of sound interweaved with the solo voice.
With brisk speeds and buoyant dotted rhythms, this was a Messiah to keep an audience alert. Although phrases were sometimes fragmented to the point of breaking up a musical line, this detache style provided extra contrast with the legato passages. The tenor and bass soloists differed in this regard with Matthew Brook opting for some very long phrases indeed. With a warm stage presence, he used his pleasingly full and controlled bass-baritone voice to give a suitably stirring account of Why do the nations and The trumpet shall sound, the latter being accompanied by some fine playing from Shane Hooton on trumpet. Both Matthew Brook and tenor Paul McMahon negotiated the florid passages with precision and ease, providing appropriate ornamentation at various points.
As was expected, Sara Macliver once again lived up to her reputation as our Australian Baroque soprano of choice. Dressed in pristine white, she looked and sounded positively angelic, tossing off fast coloratura and high notes with ease while always maintaining the spirit of the music. I know that my Redeemer liveth was a joy. Calvin Bowman at the organ and Wilma Smith as solo violin helped to make this version of a popular gem especially moving.
For many in the audience, David Hansen’s presence as the alto soloist would have been the main attraction. Anybody who had heard his recently released CD Rivals would know that his counter-tenor voice is nothing short of phenomenal. For a combination of power, range and agility there is probably no other counter-tenor in the world today who can match him. He is also commonly described as having “matinee idol good looks”. He has the wherewithal to make Messiah really sound like a three act opera full of show-stoppers. Although his bravura singing did provide some spine-tingling moments, such as in ‘For he is like a refiner’s fire’, his technique was always at the service of the music. His unaffected, attentive manner also indicated strong engagement with the work as a whole.
In general, the precision of the orchestra and soloists was matched by the work of the MSO Chorus. The sopranos and tenors were particularly successful in this regard. Greater depth of tone was needed from the alto line. Perhaps the MSO Chorus is in need of more male altos; the Brandenburg Orchestra’s recent Noel! concert was an object lesson in how substantial an alto line can sound with comparatively few singers. Nevertheless, this was a well-disciplined performance from a body of singers who do credit to Jonathan Grieves-Smith’s training.
Of the many performances of Messiah that I have heard, this would have to count as one of the most interesting. There were additions to Part the Second and Part the Third that were unfamiliar to me as was a variation of How beautiful are the feet for soprano, counter–tenor and chorus that was extremely beautiful, even though I did miss what can be a wonderful vehicle for the soprano.
This performance was a satisfying blend of tradition – including standing for the Hallelujah chorus, and imaginative reworking. On the other hand, given that Handel himself was such a master of reworking material, to provide new versions is almost a tradition in itself. We can still look forward to getting our Messiah fix and being surprised.”
Four and a half stars