Christmas, Limelight

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
December 14, 2017

A performance of Handel’s Messiah invariably draws a crowd. The oratorio, perhaps one of the most famous pieces of classical music of all time, attracts everyone from the less observant Christmas-and-Easter concertgoers, to choral aficionados, not to mention the harder core of professional Messiah-chasers.

“I needed not sell one single ticket at the door,” boasted Handel of the premiere in Dublin in 1742, where space was so tight that gentlemen were urged not to bring their swords to the performance and the ladies were urged not to wear hoop skirts. While Handel was disappointed by the reception for the London premiere (at which George II stood during the Hallelujah Chorus, ushering in a tradition that would last centuries), Messiah has become a staple for may concertgoers and a hallmark of the Christmas season. And judging by the sell-out crowd on Thursday night at the Sydney Opera House (where security staff diligently ensured swords were left outside the Concert Hall), enthusiasm for the work hasn’t dimmed.

And why should it, with the power and glory of 650 singers from Sydney Philharmonia Choirs filling the concert hall with antiphonal splendour? The first magnificent chorus And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, delivered with fine diction and precision under the baton of Elizabeth Scott – making history as the first Australian female conductor to lead the work on the Opera House stage – immediately brought home the majesty of this work.

Against this mammoth choir (about the size of the entire audience at the work’s Dublin premiere) were arrayed relatively modest orchestral forces, strings and continuo gilded with oboes and bassoons – with trumpet and drums adding panache to the more triumphant moments – who nonetheless held their own, delivering clean lines and a beautiful depth of sound.

Andrew Goodwin’s tenor was warm and resonant, combining a round, liquid tone with the power to back it up, from his opening Ev’ry valley shall be exalted to the more severe Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron – his duet with mezzo soprano Helen Sherman O death, where is thy sting? was particularly fine.

Sherman has been busy lately, performing the title role in Pinchgut Opera’s The Coronation of Poppea, for which Limelight’s Justine Nguyen praised her “meltingly lovely tone”. She brought this tone to the alto arias of Messiah with verve, and while there were a few moments when heavy vibrato obscured the text, her delivery of the da capo aria He was despised and rejected of men was masterful.

Miriam Allan brought a penetrating soprano sound to her arias, demonstrating a light flexibility and – when called for – a stunningly delicate pianissimo. Highlights included her rendition of How beautiful are the feet and I know that my Redeemer liveth.

Baritone David Greco – who has also been kept busy in recent weeks between Poppea and Bach with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – brought his burnished tone to bear on the bass solos, giving a detailed, characterful performance. He matched his lines perfectly to the sombre strings of The people that walked in darkness – his ornament on the word “death” was profoundly haunting – while he brought an athletic spring to the melismas of Why do the nations against the thrumming energy of the orchestra. He gave a rousing account of The trumpet shall sound, duetting with SSO trumpeter Paul Goodchild, who imbued the fanfare with resplendent tone and subtle, sensitive shape.

While approaches to style and vibrato varied across the soloists, they each brought plenty of personality to their roles. But weaving it all together was Scott, who deftly managed the combinations of smaller and larger choral forces providing contrast and weight with a fine sense of balance, and she gave the whole work a sense of steady momentum that never flagged.

The chorus excelled in the bright and chirpy All we like sheep, and if there were moments of more complex choral writing – some clarity was lost in the fugue And with His stripes we are healed – there were some particularly fine moments: the fugue He trusted in God, that he would deliver Him was spectacular, the Hallelujah Chorus a finely paced climax and the final Amen was lush and moving. Also worthy of a mention is concertmaster Fiona Ziegler, whose violin solos in the oratorio’s final throes – against stripped back continuo – were a pleasure.

All in all, a rousing performance of a perennial favourite and one, I’m sure, that had both Handel old hands and first-timers to Messiah leaving the Concert Hall on a high.

Elizabeth Scott conducts Handel’s Messiah with Sydney Philharmonia Choirs at the Sydney Opera House until December 16.


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