Why do we love Mendelssohn’s Elijah? For many conductors, performers and listeners, it is the perfect oratorio, combining all the dramatic musical elements required to bring this colourful story to life.
A more puzzling question is why do we love this character, Elijah? In the oratorio’s opening scene, the cantankerous prophet bursts into ominous incantation, pre-empting the overture with a curse. He condemns his people to drought and famine to force their allegiance to Jehovah, and then massacres the prophets of Baal at Kishon’s brook to ensure his rival cult will never rise again. But unlike other bad boy baritones (like Scarpia) or terrible tenors (like Pinkerton) or murderous mezzos (like Clytemnestra), we have sympathy for Elijah, thanks to librettist Julius Schubring’s careful management of Biblically inspired text. Elijah’s fiery, public character is balanced with his gentler, private self, with intimate scenes of tender compassion toward a widow and her child, his humble loyalty to his people, and his gratitude. Ultimately, in his own emotional wilderness scene, he confronts his self-doubt and contemplates suicide. He is saved by a group of angels who sing “Lift thine eyes to the mountains.”