Marshalling a large number of professional and amateur solo singers, two choirs, and the full Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra, guest conductor James Allbritten led a dramatic and robust performance of Felix Mendelssohn's Elijah in the Stevens Center on April 19. The excellent Winston-Salem Symphony Chorale was joined by the accomplished NCSA Cantata Singers, for both of which Allbritten serves as music director.
Mendelssohn began to plan an oratorio on the subject of Elijah as early as 1837 and, through the next three years, had detailed literary discussions with Carl Klingerman and Julius Schubring. A commission from the Birmingham Festival Committee in 1845 focused his efforts. He and Schubring finished the German libretto, and he worked via mail with William Bartholomew, his chosen English translator. After its August 26, 1846, premiere, in the Birmingham Town Hall, the composer made wholesale changes (rewriting the scene with the Widow, for example). The final version was given in London in April 1847, and it was a huge hit with the Victorians, second only to Handel's Messiah. Some have called it Mendelssohn's "opera," and the composer thought it was one of his finest works, an opinion many would debate today. Unlike most oratorios, Elijah does not have a continuous story line but consists of a series of tableaux from the prophet's life, with prayers or meditations interspersed. This makes it easy for the piece to drag on and on when led by lesser hands. Having endured more than one such "effort," I found Allbritten's dynamic forward drive all the more rewarding.
No printed text was provided in the otherwise fine annotated program, but the diction of all the soloists and the combined choirs was so clear that the words were understandable most of the time. I had difficulty in following only the first full chorus (after the threatening Overture), "Help, Lord! Wilt thou quite destroy us?" Otherwise, the texts were transparent in single and paired subdivisions such as just tenors, just sopranos, etc., and in the various semi-choruses. Soloists from the chorus, singing from within the choir or, occasionally up front, had secure voices, clear articulation, and fine projection; they were Alexandra Wiseman, soprano (An Israelite and an Angel), Christa Ruiz, soprano (a Child and an Angel), Olivia Vote, mezzo-soprano (an Israelite and an Angel), and Jesse Sargent, mezzo-soprano (An Angel).
The professional soloists of the vocal quartet were outstanding, very evenly matched, and displayed no weaknesses. I have long admired the fine vocal work of baritone John Williams in many concerts throughout the region; none prepared me for his masterful assumption of the role of Elijah. His full, rich tone, precise delivery, and emotional depth set new standards. Most striking was his great aria "It is enough! O Lord, now take away my life," which was introduced and ended by heart-breaking laments from the cello section, playing as one. The prophet's despair was as painful as nerve endings shorn of their coverings of skin. CVNC has chronicled the rapid and steady growth of Emily Amber Newton, in concerts and opera, since her membership in the first class of A. J. Fletcher Fellows. As the Widow and an Angel, her beautifully even dramatic soprano voice easily filled the hall at all dynamic levels, and her high notes were gorgeous as well as exact. With a voice more weighted toward the lower end of the spectrum, mezzo-soprano Yolanda Bryant brought out the pure fury of Jezebel, the real power behind the throne of Israel, and her singing as yet another Angel could have not been more strongly contrasted. In the briefer roles of Obadiah and the weak King Ahab, Glen Siebert joined fine intonation with a lovely timbre. I look forward to hearing more of his mellifluous tone and probing musicianship.
The presence of a strong choral tradition – and strong forces – with the extensive choral experience of the WSS's Music Director designate Robert Moody bodes well for future programming.