Enter your email address and click subscribe to receive new articles in your email inbox:

Messiah in Season

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Dec 20, 2011 - 12:19:35 AM in reviews_2011

George Frideric Handel

Handel's "Messiah" is so identified with the season that you can even find Christmas ornaments with bits of the score printed on them.   Many churches and communitychoruses make it a part of their Christmas celebrations and there is always a performance somewhere on television or online.

What is heard at this time of year is usually the "Advent" (Christmas) portion, nos. 1-21, ending with the chorus "His yoke is easy."  The May Festival Chorus and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra presented the entire oratorio (close to three hours with intermission) Sunday afternoon (Dec. 18) at Music Hall.  Led expertly by James Bagwell, a chamber choir of 67, a chamber orchestra of 31 and four soloists offered a "Messiah" that was keenly expressive and satisfyingly observant of baroque performance practice.  CSO keyboardist Heather MacPhail did highly effective double duty on harpsichord and portative organ.

The soloists were soprano Caroline Worra, mezzo-soprano Leah Wool, tenor Daniel Ross and bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs.

To optimize the acoustics in Music Hall, the chorus and the orchestra were situated in front of the proscenium arch (out into the auditorium) with the hall's acoustical towers lined up side-by-side behind them, flush with the proscenium.  A large crowd was on hand, many of them quite familiar with "Messiah."  In fact, a keen ear could hear someone in the audience singing along now and then. (A sing along version of part one was held Saturday night in Christ's Church in Mason.)

Bagwell, music director of the May Festival Youth Chorus and a choral/operatic/orchestral conductor of increasing eminence, shaped the music with utmost precision, favoring uniformly brisk tempos and effective word painting.  In the chorus "Surely, He hath borne our grief," for example, he gave "Surely" strong emphasis, drew out "iniquity" syllable by syllable, and lingered almost painfully on the suspended harmony at the end.  The CSO strings played with discreet use of vibrato.

The chorus sang with splendid diction (no surtitles were used and the familiar text was in the program).  It was a soprano-heavy ensemble (a chronic problem), but for the most part, balances were good and coloratura was clear, as in the notoriously difficult "And He shall purify."  No one could have sung a more joyful "For unto us a child is born," complete with a ringing "Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God . . ."

The soloists held their own individually, but were not particularly well matched.  Worra and Ross displayed very bright voices compared to Wool and Mobbs, who sang with greater warmth.   A highlight of the performance was Wool's "O Thou that tellest good tidings to Zion."  Similarly, her "He was despised" was deeply affecting.  Worra's "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion," while nimble enough, ended with an overstated high note on "King."  "He shall feed his flock," sung successively by Wools and Worra, underscored the difference in color between their voices.

Ross and Mobbs acquitted themselves well in part one and had stellar moments in parts two and three, for Ross "Thy rebuke," "Behold and see," and "Thou shalt break them," and for Mobbs, "Why do the nations rage" and "The trumpet shall sound."

The trumpet in the latter was supplied by CSO principal Robert Sullivan who ornamented his part deftly and negotiated the rapid, scale-wise passage from high A in the "Hallelujah" chorus with supreme fluidity.

"Hallelujah" is one highpoint of "Messiah" (yes, the audience stood).  The other is the final chorus "Worthy is the Lamb."  The May Festival Chorus and CSO raised goose bumps here to the last, ringing "Amen."