Messiah by Handel
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington, conducted by Graham Abbott
Soloists: Madeleine Pierard – soprano, Anna Pierard – mezzo-soprano, Simon O’Neill – tenor, Andrew Collis – bass
Michael Fowler Centre
Saturday 15 December, 6.30pm
There was a very near full house at the Michael Fowler Centre for this, now rather rare occasion. In earlier years the NZSO and the Orpheus Choir joined for the annual December performances every year or so, but for a while the tradition was broken. For many years it became common for the Orpheus Choir to take turns with other Wellington choirs to sing the oratorio.
This resumed relationship might have contributed to the big audience which generated the feeling of a festival; of a tradition re-established.
Things began very well with orchestral playing of great assurance in the Sinfonia. It was pared down to a ‘period’ size but made little attempt to produce the more pronounced characteristics of ‘period practice’. The playing was simply crisp, alive, vigorously rhythmic as well as supporting the expression of whatever emotion existed in the words.
If there was one characteristic that all four soloists shared, it was a strong dramatic instinct, not surprising from singers whose primary job is in the opera house. Simon O’Neill’s opening ‘Comfort ye’ and ‘Every Valley’ exhibited a feeling of calm, priestly and – well – comforting; his tenor voice has both a heroic intensity and a baritonal authority that supported his assurance that the rough places would be made plain.
The Chorus enters with its splendid air of religious certainty that the ‘glory of the Lord shall be revealed’. Here was a choir of well over 100 singers that had been rehearsed so well (Mark Dorrell) that they sang with clarity and exemplary ensemble, sounding like a 30-strong, specialist baroque choir, as well as a sense of excitement, involvement and plenty of volume.
Australian Bass Andrew Collis was new to me. His is the quintessential bass, fit for all the magisterial roles that demand moral fortitude and authority, and his first recitative, ‘Thus saith the Lord’, but even more his next outing with ‘The people that walked in darkness’, seemed to lend the performance as a whole, a feeling of absolute assurance and the kind of religious certainty that Handel’s audience expected. This was an old-fashioned oratorio that delivered musical delight, dramatic excitement, and a sturdy lesson in faith and morals.
Anna Pierard sang next; it was good to be reassured about her gifts having had little chance in her role as one of the Valkyries in the NZSO’s Die Walküre earlier in the year. In ‘But who may abide’ her low notes had all the warmth of the traditional mezzo as well as conveying the urgency and trepidation that the words demand. And her voice revealed itself high and bright when called for as she sang ‘when he appeareth’, with decorous ornamentation.
The alto part gets a lot of exposure in Part I and Anna’s next recitative, ‘Behold a virgin’ and the aria, ‘O thou that tellest good tidings’, reflected beautifully the tone of optimism that Isaiah’s words convey, though her ‘Behold your God’ might have been uttered with greater magniloquence. Later, however, she sang her aria ‘He was despised’ as if the grief was her own, plangent and moving, her ‘…from shame and spitting’, underpinned by the bassoon.
The various sections of chorus showed their distinct colours in the next choral number, ‘And he shall purify’, as sopranos began and others followed in fugal fashion; and they captured the sense of the next triple time chorus with the words ‘behold the glory of the Lord is risen’ with almost thrilling exuberance. One of the most famous choruses, ‘For unto us a child is born’, which for me was implanted (along with the anguished ‘Surely, he hath born our griefs’ in Part II, and much other essential musical furniture) at Wellington College’s annual concerts in the Town Hall around 1950; the words ‘Wonderful, Counsellor’, almost shouted, were alive with its clarity, joyousness and speed. For speed was a distinct characteristic of Abbott’s direction, and a reason why the performance was not too long in spite of doing the work entire rather than with the more usual cuts.
After the Pastoral Sinfonia, known as Pifa, that sets the scene for ‘There were shepherds’, comes the soprano’s first entry, and Madeleine Pierard filled her voice with a sunny arcadian spirit, beautifully supported by the orchestra that matched her air of excitement, with its variety and delicacy of string playing. After a short choral interjection – ‘Glory to God in the highest’ – she resumes in ‘Rejoice greatly’ with brightness, expressive movement, and colouring her voice enchantingly.
And it was this spirit, shared by all four soloists, of immediacy, of engagement and the dramatising of the events and prophesies in the Biblical texts that gripped the audience as if at the opera.
This performance departed from the usual practice of taking the intermission half way through Part II by breaking at the end of Part I. The pair of choruses, ‘Surely…’ and ‘All we like sheep…’, were high points, though the levity with which the music treats the latter is always a surprise.
Grief also permeates the tenor’s next numbers, and O’Neill’s spitting out of the words in ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart’ and the intensity of his top notes as he sang ‘But there was no man’ were again of operatic force. Madeleine Pierard, bass Andrew Collis and O’Neill sang, respectively, highlights like ‘How beautiful are the feet’ and ‘Why do the nations?’ and Thou shalt break them’ with superb understanding, capturing their dramatic function wonderfully.
Several later numbers of Part II are among those often cut, but here their energetic and committed performance ensured their value was fully realised. The Alleluia chorus is always a high-point and the odd tradition of standing was adhered to though, strangely, by no means all stood during the prolonged ovation at the end, where such a gesture was actually deserved.
And the succession of indelible numbers continued almost unfalteringly, with the orchestra and chorus delivering flawless performances to support Madeleine’s rapturous ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’, the revelatory chorus ‘Since by man came death’ with its sudden burst of joy, and the great bass recitative ‘Behold I tell you a mystery’ and aria ‘The trumpet shall sound’ where it did indeed do that.
Then as the end approached, the only duet in the work, ‘O death where is thy sting’ – alto and tenor answering it by their demonstrative vocal gestures, though not a perfect balance; another soprano solo ‘If God be for us’, a fine display of finesse, attention to sense and careful delivery; and ‘Worthy is the lamb’, a sort of wonderful prelude to the final fugal Amen chorus.
They may have been previous performances that approached this one, but I doubt there has been a better in this town. The audience proved that by long applause with more than half standing.