Performances of Messiah during the Christmas period can be rather routine, but having an opera company present this most contemplative of Baroque oratorios offered something new, and Classical Opera (formerly The Classical Opera Company) came up trumps with a splendid rendition of Handel’s masterpiece.
Conductor and Classical Opera founder Ian Page opted to explore the dramatic intensity of Handel’s music and Charles Jennens’ text with skeletal forces. The orchestra amounted to just 15 players, while the choir numbered only eight – two singers taking the soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts (the alto part was actually shared by a female singer and a counter tenor). Although choir and orchestra created quite a crowd on the Wigmore’s small stage, musically there was nowhere to hide, and the players and singers were forced to give their very best in the hall’s clear, and sometimes unforgiving, acoustics.
The biggest gamble – that of the tiny choir – largely paid off. True, there was some thinness of sound in certain choruses, but most of the time the volume remained surprisingly solid. There was also a sense of sureness and intimacy in the singing which is often lacking when larger forces are amassed. In two of Handel’s signature choruses – ‘Hallelujah!’ and the final ‘Amen’ – the Classical Opera singers were augmented by a crack team of soloists.
Soprano Sophie Bevan blazed where the textual and musical drama required it (as in the recitative telling of the angel’s appearance to the shepherds), and elsewhere displayed a quiet, heartfelt intensity. Tenor Allan Clayton used the range and flexibility of his voice (particularly in the upper registers, and especially in the opening ‘Comfort ye’) to good effect, while counter tenor Christopher Ainslie offered a darkly appealing take on the alto role. Only Jacques Imbrailo’s baritone didn’t quite suit. Handel’s writing calls for a bass, and although Imbailo’s light tone was pleasing enough, it didn’t carry sufficient weight and authority.
The players of Classical Opera worked wonders with the score. The strings were practically faultless throughout, and Paul Sharp’s lead on natural trumpet was quite masterly. Luckily, the whole performance was recorded live for release early in 2013.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk