Vocal Heights Top Off Cincinnati May Festival
Felix Mendelssohn: Elijah, Op. 70
Julianna Di Giacomo (soprano), Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano), Lawrence Brownlee (tenor), Shenyang (bass-baritone), Thomas Lewis (treble)
May Festival Chorus, Robert Porco (director), Cincinnati Boychoir, Christopher Eanes (director), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, James Conlon (conductor)
(© M. E. Hutton)
The 2011 Cincinnati May Festival (read here, here, and here) closed May 28 at Music Hall with a towering Elijah by Mendelssohn. Everything came together: the choruses (May Festival Chorus and Cincinnati Boychoir), orchestra (Cincinnati Symphony) and soloists (top notch). There was pageantry, too (herald trumpeters in the foyer, tiny flower girls presenting bouquets to the artists at the end). Music director James Conlon added remarks from the podium for a personal touch, carnations were handed out at the door, and there was a jubilant “Amen” party in the Music Hall Ballroom afterwards. All ratified the musical and social heritage of this Midwestern city, so steeped in Old World traditions like choral singing, of which the 138-year-old May Festival is her reigning aristocrat.
The soloists in Elijah will be ones to remember, all in their May Festival debuts. Shenyang was an affecting Elijah, applying his basso cantante voice to the dramatic needs of the text, whether commanding as the prophet, or deeply emotional as Elijah, reflecting on his “failed” efforts to reconcile Israel with God.
Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe’s ample voice threatened to overwhelm the others at first, but this impression diminished as the work unfolded. Lawrence Brownlee’s lyric tenor as Obadiah was pure pleasure early on with “If with all your hearts ye truly seek me.” Soprano Julianna di Giacomo was compelling as the Widow whose child Elijah raises from the dead. And from the balcony, treble Thomas Lewis of the Cincinnati Boychoir sang with pure sweet tone and pinpoint intonation as the Youth who spots the first rain cloud.
The heart of Elijah and of this performance was the 130-voice May Festival Chorus. Their diction, blend and expressive color illuminated the work’s magnificent choruses, shedding renewed luster on the May Festival and on director Robert Porco, who as always, deserves the lion’s share of credit in preparing them. The 25-member Boychoir, skillfully prepared by director Christopher Eanes, sang a touching “Lift thine eyes” offstage in part two.
Highpoints were many. Among them was the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal, portrayed grippingly by Shenyang and the Chorus, and celebrated in the great aria, “Lord God of Abraham,” by Shenyang. The Chorus took it from there with a stirring “Is not His word like a fire?” followed by Blythe’s sensitive “Woe unto them that forsake Him.”
Di Giacomo’s vibrant “Hear ye, Israel” began part two, and Blythe’s formidable voice lent awe to Queen Jezebel’s lines calling for Elijah’s death. The evening’s most ravishing moment came in Shenyang’s “It is enough,” haloed exquisitely by CSO principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn. The Chorus’ “He watching over Israel” tapered off gently, and Shenyang despaired achingly in “O Lord, I have labored in vain.” (There was one gorgeous aria after another in this performance.) The Chorus painted earth, wind and fire vividly in “Behold! God the Lord passed by!” Blythe joined them in “Above Him stood the Seraphim,” as “the still small voice” proclaimed God’s presence.
Associate principal oboist Lon Bussell shone in Elijah’s parting covenant, “For the mountains shall depart,” and organist Michael Chertock made his presence known in Elijah’s ascent, “Then did Elijah the prophet break forth like a fire,” conveyed with superlative energy by the Chorus. The oratorio came to a splendid end with Brownlee’s aria, “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun,” followed by the quartet, “O come, everyone that thirsteth” – where Di Giacomo, Blythe and Brownlee were joined by the fine bass William McGraw of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music – and, finally, the chorus, “And then shall your light break forth,” which brought the audience to its feet.
In time-honored fashion, Conlon turned to lead the crowd in the traditional encore, “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah.
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Mary Ellyn Hutton