Vancouver Bach Choir

Vancouver Symphony

Mendelssohn's Elijah

Conductor Bramwell Tovey Soprano Monica Whicher Mezzo Soprano Sarah Fryer Tenor Benjamin Butterfield Baritone Gary Relyea Boy soprano Greg Froese

Choirs Vancouver Bach Choir and Sarabande

Dates 19 and 21 November 2005 at 20.00 Venue Orpheum Theatre Reviewer J H Stape

Last heard in Vancouver ten years ago, Elijah (1846) is in every sense a "big" piece: weighing in at two and a half hours, it demands a sizeable orchestra and large chorus for maximum impact, to say nothing of four soloists worth every ounce of their salt. The Vancouver Symphony, the Vancouver Bach Choir, Sarabande (an offshoot of the choir), and the four soloists gave an assured and compelling rendering of this music, doomed to remain trotted out mainly as a special event, unlike that hoary favourite Handel's Messiah.

Dramatically, Elijah beats Handel hands down. Mendelssohn has clear plot lines, and the work has a distinctily operatic character, particularly in its second part. As far as the wider public goes, it misses greater popularity because of its lack of memorable melodies, however marvellous some of the choral passages and "big moments" and however rich the music for the soloists. And its subject is increasingly remote from the modern sensibility: the god in the first part is a stick-carrying Yahweh of fire and brimstone, smiting his enemies and keen to consolidate his power over his people; in the second more appealing part, Elijah his prophet, becomes more human and vulnerable, ever the man of intense vision and august authority yet less remote, his relationship to his god personal and deeper.

Gary Relyea, characteristically assured, shone as Elijah, bringing to the role a wealth of experience on the opera stage and thus modulating and giving depth to a character that might in other hands have been somewhat wooden. He was ably abetted by his colleagues. Benjamin Butterfield turned in a bright, carefully crafted performance, his supple tenor ringing out, as Obadiah. British alto Sarah Fryer, a marvellous Queen Jezebel and equally affecting angel, brought great tonal beauty and polish to her solo work, as did soprano Monica Whicher, whose singing was marked by intelligence and commitment, her voice lush and her delivery dramatically involved.

The Vancouver Bach Choir, carefully rehearsed as ever, produced a lovely sound, rising fully to the great moments -- "Behold, God the Lord" was simply thrilling -- and sweeping all before it at the prolonged climactic ending. The Choir would have done the Royal Albert Hall proud, giving a wholly idiomatic reading to this quintessentially English form. (The work premiered in Birmingham, and it remains a staple in the English choral repertoire.)

Maestro Tovey conducted the massed forces with an evident and infectious brio, bringing his usual sensitivity to the score's depths and coaxing fine playing out of the orchestra, which again displayed a versatility that now borders on the vertiginious. Tovey's attentiveness to the singers was, as ever, subtle and exemplary. Should his already astonishingly diverse career want yet other directions to flourish in the opera houses of the world await.

© 2005 JH Stape