Oratorio as barely-disguised opera

HANDEL’S MESSIAH

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre Saturday February 25 and Sunday February 26

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  Lucia Martin-Carton

That heading is saying nothing new.  The rationale behind oratorios was that they served as opera substitutes in 17th century Italy when the Church got sniffy about theatrical productions in Lent and Holy Week, apparently wanting the season’s drama to be altar-centric rather than having attention stolen by vocally florid musicians.   While the borderline between the two forms has become fuzzy, especially in an oratorio that follows a narrative, a work like Handel’s Messiah doesn’t attract theatrical treatment.  It doesn’t tell a story but jumps all over the Bible; the emotional world depicted is fitfully operatic, although gifted performers can refute that observation; performance tradition falls heavily on the side of Victorian decorum; after the monster 19th century versions with massive choirs and orchestras, the 20th century reaction has reverted to the original bare-bones score and the employment of slender resources with a preference for period instruments and all the concomitant problems of dynamic restraint and accuracy of articulation.

Paul Dyer and staging director Constantine Costi, in the latest ABO series concerts, are mounting the oratorio as a series of set scenes; the remarkable achievement is that they’ve carried this out with a minimal number of misfires and, at several points, the interpretation achieves an irresistible force, exciting to experience and a successful mirror of the composer’s inbuilt drama.   Dyer is fortunate, as usual, in his band which, as far as I could hear, worked through the score with  determination and accuracy, only a few passages in danger of lagging because the conductor insisted on lurching between his harpsichord continuo position, a podium, and front of stage to encourage a perfectly competent Australian Brandenburg Choir.

On which point, this was a night for the singers.   While the ABO players – 25 in number at full strength – negotiated this not-over-difficult score with aplomb, responding to their conductor’s idiosyncratic dynamic vaults and linear foregrounding, the choir (and soloists, of course) operated in front of them.   The trumpet solo for Part the Third’s great bass aria enjoyed sprightly treatment from Leanne Sullivan, the few uncertain notes barely noticeable alongside singer David Greco’s fierce approach.  Only some percussion effects raised question marks: a gratuitous suspended cymbal  making a strange commentary somewhere in this night’s Scene 3, and a timpani line in Why do the nations that I’ve never heard before.  And I’m still puzzled as to why concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen had to stand in front of the orchestra to lead How beautiful are the feet.

At the start, what struck you about the singers was the prominence of the altos; all males, their pushing power in And the glory of the Lord dominated the texture, right from their initial statement on.   Mind you, that often served as a revelation: all too often, you strain to hear what that particular line is doing.   For much of the time, the singers used music, but this segment was sung from memory, as were a few other key choruses, including a jubilant Hallelujah with the participants stretched across the stage front.  What impressed even more was the absence of passengers; every one of the 28 singers knew his/her responsibilities and worked through the chord sequences and quick-fire fugato passages with full commitment.   Dyer also calculated what forces he needed, keeping certain choristers silent in some lighter-textured, faster-moving pages.  But the body’s security and inbuilt brio was the major contributor to this night’s success, its changes of position and grouping keeping the balance of sonorities a moveable feast.

All four soloists are young and were encouraged to blaze through their arias and recitatives.  Tenor Kyle Bielfield set the oratorio moving with a vigorous Ev’ry valley that had its fair share of fioriture and an octave displacement for a particular low note that didn’t suit his powers of projection.  The interpretation was far from the pallid run-through we usually encounter, Bielfield determined to dominate the prevailing sound scape and infuse his work with interest.  Later, his Thy rebuke/Behold and see sequence proved much more persuasive, even if the singer transferred some of his pop music practices by inserting breaths at phrase-breaking points.

Greco made a benign impression with his Thus saith the Lord, keeping his semiquaver chains in time and projecting with vehemence across his range.  Unlike most of his colleagues, he kept any interpolated decorations reasonable, conserving his energy in For behold darkness/The people that walked in darkness, then breaking out and treating Why do the nations as a Rage aria – powerful, blazing with temperament but you wondered how long he could sustain his force.  A lordly breadth informed The trumpet shall sound and served as a cogent lead-in to the final two glorious choruses.

It was hard not to admire countertenor Nicholas Spanos right from the start for a shapely reading of But who may abide and a little later on a careful negotiation of the bouncy O thou that tellest.  His upper reaches are penetrating, not too hoot-filled, and he has no qualms about changing register for the lower passages in Handel’s probing alto solos.  He showed uncommon taste in the tense spaciousness of He was despised with its wrenching silences and he found just the right element of calm suppleness for the first half of He shall feed his flock.

Soprano Lucia Martin-Carton made her mark here when she sang with William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants as part of Le Jardin des Voix nearly two years ago in this hall, one of 2015’s most memorable nights of music-making.  On this night, with Handel’s arias she showed again a piercing clarity and ideally-centred pitch through the Nativity sequence where, for once, the series of consecutive recitatives rushed past.  Martin-Carton’s English has its oddities of pronunciation and she alone of the soloists had to use a score  –  for I know that my Redeemer liveth.  Yet her work proved gripping to watch and hear, especially in her version of Rejoice greatly where she seemed to channel temperamentally a variety of heroines – Aida, Thais, Delilah, Salome.  In a quasi-staged Messiah, this singer stood out for her realization of its drama, her biting clarity juxtaposed with a caressing lilt.

Some tableaux succeeded very well.  Spanos brought on a red scarf for the Crucifixion pages, using it to blind Bielfield as representing this section’s Christ-as-Victim focus.  Other stage work left me cold, including the use of dry ice and an unfathomable lighting grid.  But the presentation had an admirable fluency in its entrances and exits for the singers and the final Worthy is the Lamb/Amen choruses with the soloists taking part instead of sitting immobile and impassive proved majestic – when are they not? – but also moving: an all-in-together generosity resulting in a splendid sound that almost compensated for the omission of several parts of the score.

Dyer and Costi reshaped the oratorio into four segments: Darkness to Light, which ends at the For unto us a child is born chorus; The Dream, concluding at He shall feed his flock; after interval, Shame and Mourning, culminating in How beautiful are the feet; and Ecstatic Light which started with Why do the nations.  It’s a deft thematic organization, in certain ways more satisfying than the original tripartite construct.  But I missed the jog-trot of His yoke is easy, the buoyant agility of Lift up your heads, the vehemence of Thou shalt break them, and – yet again – that neglected and solitary duet, O death, where is thy sting?

Regrets to one side, Dyer and the ABO achieved their aim in giving life and a refreshing vigour to this venerable masterwork that has degenerated in status to a seasonal inevitability.   For those of us who experience Messiah as a duty or as an annual musical labour, this night re-awakened interest without torquing the score, making it serve as an excuse for interpretative excess.   The concert also served to remind us how much a man of theatre the composer was; bearing that in mind,  I doubt if anyone could accomplish the same results with the St. Matthew Passion.  Yet, in this world where the impossible and improbable have become commonplace, it has probably been done already.