Ever the astute entrepreneur Handel knew what he was doing when he decided to move his focus from opera to oratorio. His Messiah has remained popular in the English-speaking world ever since its premiere in Dublin in 1742 and continues to draw Melbourne audiences in a way that no other oratorio can. As a sing-along drawcard, even The Sound of Music and The Rock Horror Picture Show do not measure up. Certainly a big attraction is the fact that so many people have either sung all or part of Handel’s uplifting score. Most people are at least familiar with the “Halleluiah” chorus from its deployment in film and advertising.
Although the work was intended for Lent rather than Christmas, it has become integral to Christmas celebrations and appeals to a community spirit to which even an atheist can feel drawn. As the audience rises to its collective feet for the “Halleluiah” chorus at the end of Part the Second, few would realize that it was designed to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple rather than the birth or resurrection of Christ. It does, after all, follow “Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel”. We tend to remake Messiah according to our spiritual needs, knowing that a band such as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra will deliver a quality performance to fulfill them.
Renowned for his expertise in Baroque performance practice, British conductor Paul Goodwin brought a fresh approach to Handel’s work, emphasising crisp attack, strongly dotted rhythms with detached articulation and dynamic contrasts. The persuasive dramatic effects invested in his interpretation made it easy to believe that in Messiah Handel was forging a new operatic style.
In keeping with the modestly sized orchestra’s judicious use of vibrato, tenor soloist Charles Daniels, stretched out the long legato phrases of Comfort ye like a gentle caress. Equally remarkable was his heavily ornamented Every valley. While effort was apparent in some of the fioritura passages and upper notes his voice was always appealing in tone and well projected.
Chilean/Swedish mezzo-soprano Luciana Mancini also made the most of the dramatic moments in the alto solos. Less heavily ornamented, her singing was distinguished by rich, firm chest notes and warm expressiveness. There was impressive agility in “For He is like a refiner’s fire” and some exciting top notes. Even from the Balcony her dramatic dark tones animated “He gave his back to the smiters” section of He was despised.
Renowned for her mastery of coloratura singing, Rejoice greatly was bound to suit soprano Emma Matthews’ vocal talents and effervescent personality. Her ornamentation was scarcely noticeable since, apart from the final flourish, it was fairly standard and incorporated with such ease. She sang I know that my Redeemer liveth with commitment and sensitivity.
Christopher Richardson might not have the spectacular power of Teddy Tahu Rhodes, but he has a fine bass voice with a secure technique and is able to produce a range of colour. From the declamatory and agile Thus said the Lord to the hushed tones of Behold, I tell you a mystery followed by a joyful The trumpet shall sound Richardson was involved and vibrant.
Chorus master Warren Trevelyan-Jones must have been very proud of the efforts of his charges. The sopranos sounded particularly fresh and youthful, thereby making a welcome contrast to the more mature-sounding altos. Too often there is little difference in timbre. Experience was evident in the smaller body of tenors and basses, who sang confidently. Responsive to the clear direction of the conductor, they all sang with excellent precision and made an outstanding contribution to the drama of Handel’s masterpiece. Arranged in SATB order, the shifting of choral voice from sopranos to basses made for a striking effect – a kind of aural Mexican wave. The unaccompanied Since by man came death was a highlight of dynamic variation and there were some exhilarating chords at the end of His yoke is easy and the final Amen, when the parts were easily distinguished yet beautifully balanced.
If any one section of an orchestra of highly accomplished players can be singled out for comment, then the trumpets, whether in the balcony or on stage, need to be given their due. Handel certainly knew how to use his artillery and the MSO trumpets gave of their best.
A prolonged standing ovation from a second capacity audience for this Messiah said it all.
Reviewer Heather Leviston heard the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Messiah at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, on December 11.