A ‘Messiah’ As Theater, Where Historical Style Meets Modern Staging

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Jeannette Sorrell conducts the New York Philharmonic and Apollo’s Singers in Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at Riverside Church. (Photos by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK — Many non-aficionados of classical music say “Handel’s Messiah” as routinely as the phrase “The Nutcracker Suite,” even if speaking of the whole ballet. Handel’s piece certainly is beloved, yet its execution depends very much on a conductor’s choices, as the distinguished performance by the New York Philharmonic under Jeannette Sorrell at Riverside Church on Dec. 15 reflected. The founder some 30 years ago of Cleveland’s estimable period-instrument ensemble Apollo’s Fire, Sorrell led a confident, fluid, and (by design) theatrical performance, with a clear beat and participatory gestures that catered to the musicians and the music, not the spectators.

In a program note, she stated her aim to approach the oratorio as its creator did: “as a theatrical entertainment…for an opera-going public.” This slant was more than justified by the architecture and dimensions of Riverside, employed for these concerts while David Geffen Hall gets renovated. The orchestra’s history with Riverside is surprisingly short. Dimitri Mitropoulos — with organist Virgil Fox as fulcrum and joined by New York City Opera contralto Beatrice Krebs — led a very mixed program stretching from J.S. Bach to then-contemporary composers including Leo Sowerby and Howard Hanson in 1955. Messiah was from 1878 to 1915 a one-off annual Philharmonic event at either the Old Metropolitan or Carnegie Hall and was the family prerogative of the Damrosches (father Leopold and son Walter), often employing Met opera stars like Lillian Nordica or David Bispham.

Bass-baritone Kevin Deas was an exceptional soloist in ‘Messiah’ with the New York Philharmonic under Jeannette Sorrell.

Only occasionally programmed in the late 20th century (perhaps because so many other competing organizations offered it), the work as annual event took hold again in earnest only with the 2002-06 venue change to Riverside. Increasingly, both at Riverside and when the performances moved back to Lincoln Center, conductors with expertise in historically informed performance practice presided, including Harry Bicket, Jonathan Cohen, Jane Glover, Ton Koopman, Bernard Labadie, Nicholas McGegan, and Helmuth Rilling. Countertenors got more frequently deployed in the score, and the instrumental ensembles shrank in size.

As with Candide, one never knows in advance of a Messiah performance what one will or won’t be hearing. As he did in most of his oratorios and operas, Handel made frequent changes in performance editions during his lifetime, and editors and conductors have done so ever since. Leonard Bernstein’s 1959 Philharmonic run caused controversy by playing fast and loose with the order of the numbers. (On the other hand, alert to some of the changing musicological thinking about the work, he did replace the long-deployed piano with a harpsichord in the continuo and employed the pioneering Russell Oberlin as the orchestra’s first countertenor Messiah soloist.

There are always some cuts made; in decades I’ve only once or twice heard the ravishing final soprano aria “If God be for us, who can be against us?” in live performance. Here, mindful perhaps of the running time, Sorrell also sacrificed the wondrous sequential alto/soprano duet “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd,” the festive chorus “Lift up your heads, O ye gates,” and the deeply moving alto/tenor duet “O death, where is thy sting?” The edition used contained most of the work’s requisite joys, but — given the high quality of the forces involved — I would have welcomed hearing at least these four additional pieces.

Countertenor John Holiday is performing ‘Messiah’ with the New York Philharmonic amid performances at the Metropolitan Opera.

The Philharmonic itself in the last decade or so has become far more used to — and perhaps less resistant to — playing that incorporates some aspects of HIP practice. They responded to Sorrell’s generally fleet tempos well but also provided coloristic support in the strings (particularly the five celli and two basses) for her investigations of the work’s more sober texts, which occur principally in its second of three parts. Having even a moderately large orchestra militates against having the “Pifa” Sinfonia sound appropriately rustic; but that was the only playing that reminded me of the very middle-of-the-road Neville Marriner approach in this same space in 2002.

Having Kent Tritle, who leads his own Messiahs in the city yearly, on the organ and Carter Brey on cello continuo can only be termed luxurious. The instruments most flattered and liberated by the church’s vast space are the trumpets. Joined by Thomas Smith in the pulpit for the chorus “Glory to God,” principal trumpeter Christopher Martin did excellent work during the thrilling bass aria, “The trumpet shall sound”; soloist Kevin Deas, his resonant tone at magisterial ease in divisions and his delivery bearing a clear cast of imparting good news, even turned to watch Martin playing. Unlike some grandstanding brass players, Martin remained modest in demeanor after the aria and at curtain calls.

But the performance’s real trump card was the presence of Apollo’s Singers, the choral component of Apollo’s Fire in their first New York Philharmonic gig. Especially in Part One, their interventions were pure pleasure: fresh tone, spot-on intonation, and excellent ensemble. Around 40 in number, the group also happily proved far more integrated racially than the still very much Caucasian and Asian Philharmonic, a boon for the aspect of community-building these concerts in Harlem seek to support.

Soprano Amanda Forsythe’s “springwater-pure voice is utterly secure and her spirited arias all cast the requisite spell.”

Perhaps to honor Sorrell’s concept of theatricality, the soloists were all dressed pretty spectacularly. Two superb singers made their Philharmonic debuts in this series of four performances. For extraordinary countertenor John Holiday, they book-ended his two Met debut appearances as Orpheus’s Double in Aucoin’s Eurydice, a role he created in Los Angeles. (It must have been liberating to unfurl his voice alone in this venue and not worry about harmonically shadowing his baritone counterpart.) Smooth in legato and impactful in declamation, the voice carries well from from a baritonal bottom through a sopranoish top. His readings showed keen musicianship and considerable depth of feeling, particularly in “He was despised.” (The otherwise fine program book unaccountably left out the vital B section, “He gave his back to the smiters,” which Holiday delivered incisively.)

My one reservation was that, unlike his colleagues, he stayed on book throughout, as he’d done in Opera Philadelphia’s streaming of Tyshawn Sorey’s Save the Boys. This seems to be an increasing trend among even top singers — Elīna Garanča, singing gorgeously, never lifted her eyes from the Kindertotenlieder score at a pre-pandemic Met-at-Carnegie event — that limits direct communication with an audience. Such communicativeness has seemed part and parcel of everything else I’ve seen Holiday do on stage, the concert platform, and television: He will surely be doing more Messiah gigs, and I look forward to hearing one unencumbered by a score.

Boston-based Amanda Forsythe is an internationally prominent baroque singer, including past Handelian collaborations with Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire worth searching for on YouTube. Her springwater-pure voice is utterly secure, and her spirited arias all cast the requisite spell. Her trills and runs are dazzling, and though she never quite crossed the line into “Mad Scenes from the Messiah” territory familiar from Joan Sutherland’s recording with Adrian Boult, she employed a lot of decoration. I gather the spectacular upward cadenzas Forsythe, Holiday, and Deas inserted near the end of repeated A sections accorded with Sorrell’s operatic-linked concept. They all carried them off with impressive flair, but I for one feel that the (here) final soprano aria’s shining affirmation “In my flesh shall I see God” calls for greater linear simplicity.

Tenor Nicholas Phan was one of the superlative soloists in ‘Messiah’ with the New York Philharmonic.

Tenor Nicholas Phan — first up at bat here, with “Comfort ye my people” — remains a highly effective storyteller in recitative, immaculately uttered. Charm and musicianship (including good breath control in the “test moments”) in high supply compensate in some measure for a now constricted range, which found his voice sometimes beset with a hardened or scratchy quality at full tilt on top. Softer phrases in midrange sounded lovely, and Phan got everything together for the final aria, “Thou shalt break them.” Deas affirmed his status as one of America’s finest concert singers, though one not sufficiently recognized even within the industry. His secure coloratura and wide dynamic range supported nuanced, communicative readings of both the recitative and aria texts. It took me a while to realize that the four soloists were singing along with Apollo’s Singers, looking mighty happy to be doing so. The evening’s auditors certainly left happy, too.

Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden and the Wexford and Glyndebourne Festivals.

Jeannette Sorrell with the New York Philharmonic, Apollo’s Singers, and soloists John Holiday, Nicholas Phan, Amanda Forsythe, and Kevin Deas.