Stuffy traditions are pushed aside in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah which Sandra Bowdler says is brought to life with imagination and solid musical values.
Elijah, West Australian Opera and UWA Conservatorium of Music ·
Winthrop Hall, 16 May 2021 ·
These days Mendelssohn’s Elijah can seem quite archaic; in fact it was old fashioned when it premiered in 1846. The composer was aiming for the gravity and sacred aura of Handel’s English oratorios and banished from it any element of post-1800 composition. However the briefest comparison with Handel’s Old Testament oratorios shows that Mendelssohn really had no idea how to transmute those messy stories into dramatic gold.
After the thunderous success of its first performance at Birmingham, enthusiasm for Elijah waned over the decades, with an anti-Semitic attack from Wagner – Mendelssohn’s family was Jewish in origin but had converted to Lutheranism – and the ultimate put-down from George Bernard Shaw who attacked the author’s “kid glove gentility, his conventional sentimentality, and his despicable oratorio mongering.”
On the other hand, there is great drama in some of the choral chunks in Elijah, and lyrical passages that can be most enjoyable. This performance – a collaboration between the West Australian Opera company and the Conservatorium of Music at the University of Western Australia – managed to shake off some of the work’s cobwebs, with semi-staging, subtle lighting and strong musical values down to director Margrete Helgeby Chaney, lighting designer Mark Howett, conductor Christopher van Tuinen and choral director Andrew Foote. It was somewhat truncated, with some choruses and the whole widow’s son episode omitted; I doubt anyone much noticed.
UWA’s Winthrop Hall is a structure designed for graduations with no proscenium arch or other trappings of an operatic venue, but an alternative performing space was created by locating the orchestra on the stage and organising the audience in bleachers around a central platform over and around which the principals and choral members flowed, with use also made of the colonnaded upper gallery. As well as the well-deployed lighting, a hazy orange ambience presumably produced by some modern dry ice equivalent filled the hall, perhaps representing the drought of part one, certainly a dramatic detail that modern Australians can relate to. Most of the barefoot performers wore dark coloured casual clothes, including t-shirts, jeans and skirts. Elijah wore a white uncollared shirt over jeans, with Obadiah in a jacket, perhaps indicating a more bureaucratic role than the demented but holy prophet.
Most of the rank and file were music students, comprising the UWA Symphony Orchestra and the UWA Symphonic Chorus, augmented by members of the WA Opera chorus. On Sunday night van Tuinen managed to instil discipline and purpose in the orchestra and the singers, no mean feat as they surged around the performance space and up and down from the galleries. Only in the very loudest choruses, such as the huge ponderous finale, did the massed voices lose clarity.
It was unfortunate that the originally intended Elijah, James Clayton, was indisposed at the last minute, but lucky for his substitute, rising Perth opera star Lachlann Lawton. Understandably, his acting was less developed than that of the other soloists and he was furthered hampered by having to sing from a book. While he never quite embodied the wild-eyed hectoring prophet, he carried the day with well-articulated singing. His low notes were not always fully audible, and at times he seemed most at home at the top of his range, so it will be interesting to see how he develops.
Lisa Harper-Brown has spent some years singing in Germany until returning to Perth a few years ago, and, particularly in ‘Hear ye, Israel’ her voice was powerful and her stage presence authoritative. Emerging singer mezzo-soprano Chelsea Kluga impressed with ‘Woe unto them’. Tenor Paul O’Neill has a fine clarion tenor and an easy stage confidence which served him well as Obadiah. Several members of the chorus appeared to advantage in minor parts, notably Wilson Kang as Ahab and soprano Abbie Radford whose beautifully pure high notes provided some memorable moments. Overall, the student performers were an asset in this lively production which was greeted with warm applause on this final night.
Pictured top: Christopher van Tuinen is bathed in orange light as he conducts ‘Elijah’, a collaboration between the UWA Conservatorium and West Australian Opera. Photo: James Rogers
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