George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is practically inescapable in London, particularly around the Christmas and Easter holidays where ensembles ranging from school children to the London Symphony Orchestra perform a favourite that inevitably draws crowds time and time again. To many, it as much of a tradition as Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. But this year, the second Easter of the Covid-19 Pandemic, was different. There would be no such littering of the Messiah given the social distancing requirements in place throughout the United Kingdom since January. It was with great joy then, that I saw the English National Opera (ENO) was planning on recording the oratorio for Easter, airing on Holy Saturday at the prime-time hour of 6 pm. While stripped down to the basics (only one hour,) the ENO orchestra, chorus and a diverse group of soloists led by the capable hands of Laurence Cummings gave a triumphant performance.
Presenters Petroc Trewalny and Yolanda Brown provided a brief introduction of the work and asserted its true purpose for this time of year (the work was premiered for Easter in Dublin in April 1742.) Unlike Mozart’s Requiem, which was broadcast in November 2020, the Messiah made full use of the auditorium, with the choir situated throughout the theatre and soloists singing from a variety of locations. It thus felt far more naturally inclined and directed towards a televised performance, rather than one that was just taped and aired. Further, the conditions of Handel’s work were explained as Trewalny and Brown made note of the fact that there were to be eight rather than the typical four soloists for the performance, an incredibly solid choice as it allowed for a variety of voices to be heard throughout, making for an interesting and engaging hour.
Anthony Gregory began the evening with “Comfort ye…” which was brilliantly phrased and featured excellent breath control and support before moving into a rousing “Every Valley…”. After, the chorus sang “And the Glory of the Lord,” revealing a strange-sounding audio mix and acoustic that put the choir out of time with the orchestra, a theme that would, unfortunately, appear throughout the evening in the faster choral movements. “But who may abide the day of his coming” was sung brilliantly by countertenor Iestyn Davies, who demonstrated a round tone while matching the palpable energy of the agitato sections. Closing the first part was Nardus Williams who performed “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion” with quite a heavy timbre. Some moments soared, particularly the incredibly tricky melismas, but there were also lacklustre sections. Williams seemed to have difficulty with tempi and gave an altogether anti-climactic ending to the aria.
It felt strange wrapping up part one by 6:23 pm, but there was a schedule to keep to. Acoustics seemed to be the choir’s biggest weakness, yet it was also its greatest strength. This was shown particularly in the haunting “Behold the Lamb of God,” where the freer tempo allowed for the gorgeous tone of the choir to be on full display. Orchestra leader, Magnus Johnston also provided several solos, making sound decisions on ornamentation. Christine Rice sang “He was Despised,” displaying a nice low register while remaining stoic and well pronounced. Bass-to-watch William Thompson delivered a strong rendition of “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” with a deep and authoritative voice before ceding to John Lindon who sang a strange cut of the two numbers before the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Another unfortunate victim of the acoustics, this usual highlight of the evening seemed to struggle along. However, the most famous of numbers was salvaged by the ending with its gloriously round sound.
“I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” was sung by Nadine Benjamin who had superb pronunciation and ornamentation, though exhibited questionable breathing, slowing down the melodic line. The choir triumphed in “Since by man came death,” providing an amazing revelation of tone.
The true highlight of this Messiah was Benson Wilson’s performance of “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” While deep, his voice managed with great success the incredible leaps and bounds written by Handel. Intonation through the melismas and other ornamentation made this performance stand out as one of the best I have heard. This carried the choir into perhaps one of the best endings to an oratorio. The “Amen” was lovely especially as the choir lingered on the syllable “Ah,” basking in the reverberations of the London Coliseum.
And just like that, it was over. Typically, the Messiah comes with a lot of back pain and loss of attention for the audience, so this shortened format worked nicely. It was, of course, sad to see such brilliant moments as “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion,” “And He Shall Purify,” and “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray” cut. Nevertheless, this performance maintained a strong and captivating energy throughout and many of the cuts proved to make it more energetic. All in all, this was a very solid recording and is well worth watching.
The performance of Handel’s Messiah from the English National Opera is available on BBC iPlayer
Zack Dickerson, April 2021
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