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Above: Teddy Tahu Rhodes performed the role of Elijah. Featured image: the 400-strong Festival Chorus and  Philharmonia Orchestra were conducted by Brett Weymark. Photos: Keith Saunders.

Mendelssohn’s late work, Elijah, composed one year before his death, is as impressive in its structure as his prodigiously constructed solo, orchestral and chamber works written when just a teenager. This oratorio was created with powerhouse dramatic demands on choristers and soloists built in and ably furnished with regards to orchestral accompaniment by this skilful artisan of the Romantic period.

The Romantic oratorio was quite the compelling vehicle for audiences to take a ride in. The plots full of twists and turns, with intense, undulating emotions and outcomes affecting large, passionate populations was perfect Romantic fare. This Old Testament tale of the prophet Elijah’s efforts to cleanse Israel of pagan rather than Godly worship is a masterpiece of the developing oratorio genre from the nineteenth century.

Elijah’s orchestral forces, capably and creatively scored for by Mendelssohn, talented orchestrator and creator of dramatic soundscapes, provide a compelling accompaniment to solo and choral atmospheres, predicaments, each new argument and outburst. For this performance the assembled orchestra was well harnessed by conductor Brett Weymark.

The intricate orchestral tapestry so well managed, right from the evocative Overture following Elijah’s solo declamation of drought at the start of the work was just one of several successful layers combined to give satisfying momentum, colour and energy in this Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ version of the landmark work.

Above: Tenor soloist Andrew Goodwin. Photo credit: Keith Saunders.

Mendelssohn’s epic oratorio with operatic scenes and operatic theatrical scope was in safe hands here. A fine troupe of vocal soloists adept at both fully staged opera performance as well as concert-style vocal and choral performances helped bring accurate, believable characterisations of the prophet, Israeli King and Queen, courtier, widow, youth and angels.

The prophet, God’s angels and adversaries are represented through vocal ensemble or soloists commenting of Elijah’s quest to convert the masses. Dialoguing also with the controversial prophet, the choir needs to represent the Israelites fearing drought or ruin in general, commenting in favour of Elijah’s quest to display God’s glory as well as savagely criticising him and opposing him as followers of the god  Baal.

The choice of the Festival Chorus of some four hundred voices to present this work’s dramatic intricacies in English made for some thrilling dramatic moments and some admirably crisp and precise walls of sound from the massed choir as the troubled or righteous masses. Such precision, agility and breathtaking moments of impact, in evidence right from the opening choir explosion ‘Help, Lord, wilt thou quit destroy us?’, was consistent throughout the sprawling work. Finely wrought, nuanced and balanced across the large choir also were fugal sections and short interjections as well as the solid declamations in sections of more anthemic comment.

Above: Soprano soloist Celeste Lazarenko. Photo credit: Keith Saunders.

Here the moments of angelic commentary or scene linking were beautifully blended and varied by eight members from the Pacific Opera Studio, joining the forces. These vocalists were an impressive conduit between the soloists and earthly hordes represented by the choir. The ensemble sensitivity of this group was always excellent, could be placed beside or behind the orchestra and soloists in the refurbished Concert Hall acoustic, as well as commenting from on high from the audience box seating. The characters of angels were accurately brought to us from these capable voices.

Also convincing was treble Charlie Swan’s voice as the Youth in Part 1. The clarity and phrasing from this vocalist for only a few fragments was one of many impressive and enjoyable solo sung moments in this performance, blessed with so many of these moments.

The event was also blessed to have Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ reverberant bass baritone voice and well-graded eloquence intoning the sentiments, warnings and challenges of the prophet Elijah. The sheer power and adroit directness of his text delivery commanded the stage- here booming from mid-stage behind the orchestra- in as complete characterisation as any of his past operatic roles with full staging. There was great vulnerability and shifting shades of colour is his despairing aria ‘It Is Enough’.

Above: Sian Sharp was the mezzo soprano soloist for this performance. Photo: Keith Saunders.

Celeste Lazarenko and Sian Sharp duetted smoothly in angelic ‘songs with words’. They also had solo successes of either pure lyricism or ribald effectiveness to propel the story. Sharp’s fiery anger as Queen Jezebel motivating the crowd to turn against Elijah was performed in fine voice and with classical operatic management of a key plot twist. Lazarenko’s aria and warning ‘Hear Ye Israel’ greeted us and the People after interval with a seamless sonority and perfect restraint. It was an atmosphere to treasure.

Andrew Goodwin in the tenor roles of King Ahab and courtier Obadiah sang with penetrating effectiveness and clear, well-shaped contrast to Elijah as the high male voice in the mix. This performer’s contribution to the oratorio’s company was, as always, perfect concert oratorio or choral work fare.

Goodwin’s reading, as well as all his colleagues on stage helped make this rendering of the huge, popular romantic Oratorio, here with huge disciplined choir, a major choral event for Sydney, and a triumph in recent and all time for Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, especially in its Festival Choir history. A recording of the landmark oratorio with such assembled forces would be similarly a landmark moment preserved, with its unflagging excitement and drama from the Prophet’s opening curse to the final Amen.

New and existing fans of Festival Chorus will be once more amazed when the choir performs this October in a programme featuring Dame Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D Major as well as Beethoven’s Ode To Joy.


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