Elijah, Op.70 – Oratorio on texts from the Old Testament
Elijah – Shenyang
The Widow, The Angel, Soprano Solos – Christine Brewer
An Angel, Queen Jezebel, Alto Solos – Stephanie Blythe
Obadiah, Ahab, Tenor Solos – Anthony Dean Griffey
Ryan Williams (boy soprano)
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
[Ensemble Soloists: Meredith Hansen (soprano), Gigi Mitchell-Velasco (mezzo-soprano), Steven Tharp (tenor) & David Kravitz (bass-baritone)]
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 5 April, 2010
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
When the Birmingham Festival Committee commissioned an oratorio from Mendelssohn in the summer of 1845, he not only finished work on “Elias” which he had started as early as 1837, but he also had the text translated into English, and it was premiered as “Elijah” in August 1846. It was therefore a curious choice to perform the German version in New York – without supertitles – when a composer-sanctioned English version exists.
Anthony Dean Griffey, substituting for Aleksandrs Antonenko, had already sung the Boston performances, but he was still struggling with the German diction. He also suffered from a wide vibrato in his first aria, but finally settled into a more comfortable, ringing delivery of the remainder of this small role. Similarly Stephanie Blythe started out somewhat unsettled with noticeable register breaks, and difficulty controlling soft passages. Although things improved after the interval, this was still not quite the fabulous voice we have come to expect from her; one wonders whether this year’s extraordinarily high pollen counts may have been affecting her.
Christine Brewer, however, lived up to her reputation – powerful, passionate singing with some edgy top notes, but resonant and rich in the middle register. Her dramatic intensity contrasted starkly with Shenyang’s concept. Everything was beautiful, long legato lines, great attention to detail, but this was too polite a prophet, not a stentorian, thundering one. At the age of 25 he is still developing as a bass-baritone, and it will be very interesting to watch him attain his full vocal powers.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, in its 40th-season and with the same conductor, John Oliver, sang impressively – and from memory. With a dynamic range from hushed murmurs to great waves of sound this group of 147 singers gave voice to “The People” throughout this long work. For all the richness of their singing one could have wished for a little more attack in the diction. More Italian than German in approach, the rough edges of the text were smoothed over, dulling some of the drama in the process.
Presiding over these massed forces was Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos in one of his infrequent New York performances, substituting for an ailing James Levine. Although he is in his late-70s, his energy remains undiminished. Conducting with large gestures throughout, Frühbeck elicited a detailed and warm performance from the Boston Symphony, and clearly delineated counterpoint from orchestra and chorus alike.Particularly in the big choral sections he showed his deep love for this oratorio, and he managed to present the more than two hours of music as a coherent, fascinating whole.