Impressive semi-staged Elijah from Orpheus Choir, Orchestra Wellington and superb soloists

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington and Orchestra Wellington
Brent Stewart (conductor); Frances Moore (staging director)

Mendelssohn: Elijah

Martin Snell (Elijah), Lisa-Harper-Brown (widow), Maaike Christie-Beekman (Angel), Jamie Young (Obadiah), Archie Taylor (Boy); voice students of New Zealand School of Music,

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 23 May 2015, 7.30pm

I found this performance of Elijah entertaining, inspiring, and of a very high standard.  So did the large, attentive audience, who responded enthusiastically.  After the performance, I heard many favourable comments.

The first thing that struck one coming into the auditorium was the huge screen behind the choir seats.  However, it was not used for projecting images, but was simply suffused with colour.  The colour chosen varied with the mood or location of the various sections of the oratorio.

Martin Snell came on, in business suit but without a tie, and sang the words of the introductory oration, then while the orchestra played the Overture, the choir wandered in, wearing casual clothes in white or light colours, which I took to denote a Middle Eastern setting – but this made it curious that the soloists were dressed in modern garments.  It was good to see the choir appearing to have personalities, rather than being in their usual dour black, which makes the members fade into the background. Bright lighting enhanced the visual effect.

The orchestra members were placed on low platforms, to be above the action on the front of the stage.

Martin Snell immediately impressed; he was in fine voice.  In a radio interview he had said that he had sung the oratorio numbers of times in its language of writing: German, presumably in Germany and Switzerland, where he is based.  (This rather gives the lie to Roger Wilson’s assertion in his excellent programme note, that it ‘is seldom performed in Germany’.)  Snell therefore found it quite difficult, he said, to fit the English words to the notes.  However, that was not apparent.  Except that he sang entirely from the score.  In their much smaller roles, Harper-Brown used it some of the time, but Maaike Christie-Beekman not at all.

After performances in the 1950s and 1960s, the Orpheus Choir sang the work in 1971, and then not again until 1999, when there was a semi-staged performance, when Rodney Macann, dressed in sackcloth, sang the title role entirely from memory, moving round the stage in dramatic fashion.  However, apart from several other soloists being in costume, that version bore little relation to this semi-staged version.

Some of the choir were initially disposed at the front of the stage as a semi-chorus (where they could not see the conductor), before later taking their places in the main chorus.  The orchestra set the atmosphere well.

Brent Stewart conducted clearly and decisively, although it seemed to me that in the first half he was conducting with his hand, the baton being merely an extension.  However, in the second half he found his baton technique.

Almost throughout the performance, the projection of words by both soloists and choir was good – but I was sitting fairly near the front.  All the soloists sang as the real professionals most of them are; this applied also to a couple of the NZSM students who had minor roles of some significance: Katherine McIndoe and William McElwee.  It was most impressive to observe the resonance Martin Snell obtains by using the resonators of the face to assist in delivering the goods.

The orchestra’s every note, rhythm and dynamic seemed to be in place.  This was true of the choir also; I only observed one false, stumbling entry in the whole work in which, after Elijah, the choir has most to do.

I was tempted to say that this was Martin Snell’s night, such is the size of his role and the quality of his performance.  That would be unfair – it was also the choir’s and the orchestra’s night.  Snell handled the high tessitura of most of his role with aplomb – and got an opportunity to use his low notes in the quartet ‘Cast thy burden upon the Lord’, one of the most beautiful moments, with its solo quartet sections and intervening orchestral passages.

There were a few judicious cuts in the work, to bring the length down, but the only number I really missed was the felicitous ‘He that shall endure to the end’.  It would have been another demonstration of the huge variety of Mendelssohn’s writing; his ability to move from rousing to contemplative, to delicate, from chorale-like harmony to fugue.  In the delicate category was the lovely trio ‘Lift thine eyes’, sung by a women’s semi-chorus – in this case, the NZSM students, as angels, sited in the left gallery.  Here, I felt there was insufficient lightness, blend, or ethereal textures.

Elsewhere, they produced lovely tone, balance and blend, although I found them insufficiently impassioned as the priests of Baal (re-costumed in black) compared with the following chorus from
the full choir.  One feature of the choir’s singing was that fortissimo passages were sung with lively tone that was still pleasant on the ear, for example, in ‘Woe to him!  He shall perish’.  In contrast was the delicious ‘He, watching over Israel’, all calm and dignity.

The full choruses were splendid, as was Lisa Harper-Brown, in her roles as widow and soprano soloist.  Jamie Young, the tenor, was a little uneven.  In his first solo, ‘If with all your hearts’ he was fine, apart from a couple of strained higher notes.

Action there was, but it seldom distracted from the music, and in fact added drama and interest.  The inherent drama in the music and words was demonstrated, in a naturalistic way.

Elijah’s solo ‘It is enough!’ featured a solo cello that both precedes the sung aria and continues through it.  This was exquisitely played by Brenton Veitch.  Another delightful instrumental solo was for oboe, in Elijah’s aria ‘For the mountains shall depart’.

Archie Taylor performed his role as the boy more than satisfactorily.  He had to act as well as sing; his voice was clear and true.

The famous solo ‘O rest in the Lord’ was beautifully sung by Christie-Beekman, without being made too sentimental.  The orchestral accompaniment was a marvel of delicacy and subtlety.  I was horrified to see in the printed programme (but not in Roger Wilson’s note) ‘Oh rest in the Lord’ – using the feeble exclamation instead of the ‘O’ of invocation.

The chorus, appropriately, have the last word, singing ‘And then shall your light break forth’.  Who said Mendelssohn was not a genius?  In my book he was, and this triumph of a performance was another proof; the opera he never wrote.

The production involved movement for the choir as well as for the semi-chorus and soloists; all this was a lot of work for a one-off performance.


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