Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Messiah @ Barbican Hall, London

13 December 2007

It does not need restating that Messiah is a work immensely rich and varied of content, Handel’s compositional inspiration never flagging and his stylistic palette wide, explorative.

Such is the wealth of music here that, though one may dislike individual numbers or be tired of hearing others too often, the whole is colourful and transcendental in its cumulative effect.

Likewise, though this performance had its problematic elements, the whole pleased greatly. John Mark Ainsley promised much in his opening accompagnato Comfort ye, his slightly heavy-handed delivery adding a nobility to God’s words, and the mournful quality to his tenor successful in suggesting the lone voice of the Biblical text, crying out in the wilderness. As the evening progressed, Ainsley’s intelligent delivery was consistently pleasing, but his voice seemed not at its purest (as it was for English National Opera’s superb L’Orfeo last year). The top notes proved increasingly problematic, most notably in the Part Two aria Thou shalt break, and strain up above took its toll on the intonation, Ainsley’s pitch tending to veer towards the bottom of the note.

Soprano Gillian Keith, on the other hand, delivered her pastoral scena in Part One tentatively, swallowing many of her vowels, but proceeded to gain in both presence and tone. By the Part Three Air If God be for us, though Keith’s voice still struggled to project strongly into the Barbican Hall, her sound was prettily light and easy, especially in the upper registers. I also liked her natural stage presence. Matthew Rose, however, for all his hard work, seemed unsuited to the bass role: he pushes his voice hard, and the coloratura passages suffered here as a consequence, tending to lack definition.

Counter-tenor Iestyn Davies was, meanwhile, a treat, his enunciation a model of clarity and his bell-like, focused sound caressing every one of Handel’s melodic lines. In the Part Three duet O death, his firmly-placed, pure tone proved tough to match for Ainsley. The four soloists then were not perfectly chosen, yet the performance succeeded in spite of any of the aforementioned problems.

And I here point to The Sixteen and The Orchestra of the Sixteen, the former singing and the latter playing with enough nimbleness, humour and intelligence to meld any individual flaws in the performance into a convincing, homogenous whole. I listened in delight to the orchestral sound throughout; as Ainsley proclaimed Every valley shall be exalted, the band’s sound was crisp and cheeky, the wispy strings spirit-like, the harpsichord continuo dancing. Tempi were brisk yet never rushed, under the direction of Harry Christophers. Indeed, the lightness of ensemble conjured much drama and weight itself. To take but one example, the popular Part One chorus For unto us a child is born was fun and delicate, yet the suddenly golden cries of Wonderful, Counsellor burst from the texture like the Sun breaking through the clouds. The choir sang with equal radiance, though perhaps a greater sense of forward motion would have benefited the concluding Amen. The whole was, then, both a flawed and a pleasurable evening of Handel.

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