One of the many joys of this performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah was the extent to which it took the bull by the horns in telling a story.
Sung in English, which helped us truly feel what was going on, and virtually semi-staged, it succeeded in fulfilling Mendelssohn’s aim to present ‘a believable progression of dramatic events representing Elijah’s life’.
Composed in 1845-46, Elijah, one of Mendelssohn’s last major compositions, tells of the Old Testament prophet’s journey as he convinces the Israelites to trust in God, then despairs as they still reject Him after He has sent rain, but finally wins them over when he realises that God shows his strength through gentleness.
The London Oriana Choir, conducted by David Drummond who also led the Brandenburg Sinfonia, delivered on both flare and precision throughout. Whether singing the quiet, devotional ‘Open the heavens’, or the resounding final chorus, ‘And then shall your light break forth’, the sound remained beautifully balanced, particularly on the frequent occasions when different parts underlay each others’ lines in turn. The point at which the chorus appealed to their own gods crying ‘Hear and answer, Baal’, only for there to be a moment of silence followed by Elijah’s quiet aria ‘Lord God of Abraham’ demonstrated this performance’s success in bringing out the dramatic elements in Mendelssohn’s work.
Sir Thomas Allen was a fine Elijah, a still, but powerful presence in the opening, demonstrating resolve as much in his face as his voice. Then throughout the piece he presented a variety of emotions (such as gloating as he taunted the Israelites to call on the Baalim), whilst never ceasing to come across as spiritual and deadly serious. The other soloists each played several parts, with Sarah Fox delivering anguish and purity of tone in equal measure as she presented the widow.
As Queen Jezebel, Rosie Aldridge’s highly engaging voice seemed just as well suited to whipping up the Israelites as the words she actually sang, whilst Andrew Staples gave an incredible performance of ‘Then shall the righteous shine forth’. It was also pleasing to see several chorus members excel as they joined the soloists for various trios and quartets.
The principals truly acted their roles, moving about the stage to perform different sections. This was particularly noticeable as Elijah called on a child to look up to see if God had sent rain. Superb treble, twelve-year old Lucian Clinch obliged by pointing and leaping about the stage, as his own lines soared up to the heavens.
This theatrical element could have been tightened up, however, and the soloists’ variety of acting styles was occasionally problematic. Brilliant though he was, Allen’s performance felt too insular compared with everything going on around him. To an extent, this emphasised further his own unique character, but sometimes it felt more like a mismatch of styles than an effective contrast.
Nevertheless, for a performance that succeeded in combining superlative singing with high drama, this presentation of Mendelssohn’s Elijah would surely take some beating.