★★★★☆ Handel with heft turns a concert into an occasion.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
December 3, 2015

Handel’s Messiah is one of the first musical examples of ‘event entertainment’. It may seem run of the mill nowadays, but since the most famous oratorio in the world burst on the scene in Dublin back in 1741 it has been growing bigger and bigger with little sign of a decline in popularity. Handel knew he was onto a good thing, programming it every season up until his death. The Victorians couldn’t get enough of it, the choirs swelling from Handel’s modest forces up to 500, 800 and a ridiculous 2765 blowing the roof off the Crystal Palace in 1859. Here in Sydney, we were back to 500, but as serried ranks go that’s still quite an array, with the Sydney Philharmonia Symphony Chorus of around 100 being supplemented by a Christmas Choir of eager ‘rock up and have a go’ amateurs, all of whom have attended numerous rehearsals in order to learn the thing by heart – no mean feat considering a performance lasts for nigh on three hours!

For this outing, the massed forces were supplemented by the Signing Choir, a dozen or so performers translating the text into sign language for the hearing impaired under the guidance of Alex Jones, himself born deaf and an innovator in the field of bringing captioning into new environments. I’ve seen more choreographic signing, and I’ve also seen gesture more cleverly illuminating the inner workings of Handelian counterpoint (most notably in Peter Sellars’ sublime Theodora for Glyndebourne back in the 1990s), but there was no denying that the movement here became part of the ritual itself, adding an additional emotional element to proceedings and never really distracting from the music in hand. The evangelical nature of Charles Jennens’ carefully crafted text suited all that arm waving and if there were the odd comical moments – He Shall Purify seemed to involve rather a lot of scrubbing and the Mexican wave Amens raised the odd smile – it generally added spiritual uplift to the occasion.

Brett Weymark’s way with the score was brisk, efficient and focussed on the story. Messiah doesn’t have much of a narrative, but when it’s there, Weymark went for it with choruses like Surely, He Hath Bone Our Griefs coming as an explosion of outrage and He Trusted in God that He Would Deliver Him ringing out more like a visceral Bach Passion than a nice bit of a fugal singsong. Baroque dance forms were clearly uppermost in the conductor’s mind, so O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion became a sprightly minuet and Rejoice Greatly felt distinctly like a jig. My only criticism would be that occasionally his soloists struggled to keep up. However, this Messiah certainly never dragged, and at the final chorus coming in around the 10:45pm mark it felt like we must be finishing considerably earlier.

The chorus was in fine form. By turning them into essentially two choirs, with the Symphony Chorus singing the lot and the Christmas Chorus bolstering the biggest moments, the four-part layering became more like eight with some exciting antiphonal effects and a sense that the music was coming at you from all sides. When they were all at it, this was a whopping great sound, yet the inner detail was surprisingly clear – a testament to rehearsal time well spent and understanding of the acoustics. Diction was excellent with sections well on top of their material, but basses seemed on exceptional form and sopranos were especially fine, culminating in a magnificent Hallelujah Chorus.

The soloists were mostly exemplary. Rachelle Durkin is an excellent voice and a class act, though her bel canto tone suits the more up-tempo numbers a little better than I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, which could have had a little more gravitas. She was outstanding though in the dramatic recitatives surrounding the birth of Christ, a testament to her operatic instincts. Louise Callinan produced a full, proper contralto sound, rich and fruity and rather special. He Was Despised was – as it should be – the emotional highlight of the evening, her care for the text and depth of feeling making for a compelling reading. New Zealand tenor Jonathan Abernethy was in magnificent voice, his clear tones ringing out effortlessly and his diction spot on. Seizing our attention from the start with a concentrated Comfort Ye, he made each of his contributions equally memorable thanks to a voice of great lyrical beauty reminding me of some of the great tenors of the past such as Dennis O’Neill and Stuart Burrows. Only Rodney Earl Clarke’s bass arias disappointed, his voice a little woolly getting lost low down and sounding awkward in the upper middle. Recitative was fine, but the coloratura was muddy and The Trumpet Shall Sound was only rescued by the magnificent, clarion-toned trumpet of Paul Goodchild who played a blinder all evening.

In the end though, the night was the choir’s and they fully deserved the rapturous applause at the end of the event. Yes, we all stood for the Hallelujah Chorus, but we could equally well have been standing for the singers, many of whom would have been performing for the first time without the aid of a safety net and in the Sydney Opera House, no less. More power to their elbows (and tonsils).

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs perform Messiah on Saturday and Sunday December 5 and 6.