Review: Hallelujah! Local voices give Messiah a splendid recital

Handel’s Messiah

National Arts Centre Orchestra, Paul Goodwin, conductor; Jacqueline Woodley, soprano; Diana Moore, mezzo-soprano; Colin Balzer, tenor; Alexander Dobson, baritone; Cantata Singers of Ottawa and Seventeen Voyces

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre

Reviewed: Tuesday. Another performance, Wednesday at 7 p.m.

OTTAWA — The most popular of all choral works, Handel’s Messiah, is a little unusual. Unlike nearly all other oratorios, it doesn’t so much tell a story as comment on one that the audience is presumed already to know. True, there is a brief sequence describing the shepherds in the fields and the angels of the Lord, but the rest of the text is made up mainly of prophecy and theology.

Conductor Paul Goodwin’s approach was in line with current thinking of things like rhythm and tempos and, what’s more, was eminently musical. It wasn’t so much a unique interpretation as an especially well-realized one with phrasing that always nailed the musical logic.

Goodwin couldn’t have done it alone, naturally. Little need be said about the National Arts Centre Orchestra since it’s no secret that it’s a top-notch ensemble, except that the style of its playing was altogether admirable and in line with the approach the conductor chose.

Then there was the chorus. The chorus often singing at the NAC is made up of a large number of singers from four or five local choirs. This time there were about 65 singers from just two of the best: Seventeen Voyces and the Cantata Singers of Ottawa. They sang very well indeed, even for the most part in the seemingly endless melisma that is part of so many of the choral numbers. Once or twice there were suggestions of strain at the top among the male voices, but they were infrequent.

One of the most impressive choral numbers was Behold the Lamb of God with its relatively brisk tempo and marcato phrasing. The orchestra and chorus came across consistently with the requisite bite.

There were a few judicious cuts, primarily in Part Three. Among them was O Death, Where is Thy Sting, a lovely duet that is almost never heard except in painfully complete performances.

There was an excellent quartet of soloists. Tenor Colin Balzer led off with beautiful accounts of Comfort Ye and Every Valley, sure of voice, diction and detail. His various contributions to Part Two were especially also pleasing.

Baritone Alexander Dobson’s dark and powerful voice was always a pleasure to hear and mezzo-soprano Diana Moore sang beautifully, with admirable melisma in the Refiner’s Fire aria.

Soprano Jacqueline Woodley substituted for an ailing Hélène Guilmette. She did an especially nice job with But Thou Didst not Leave His Soul in Hell, an arietta normally given to the tenor.

This was the finest Messiah I’ve heard at the NAC in many years. And yes, the Hallelujah Chorus was splendid.

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© Michael Zaugg 2019