What are the odds that there would be three separate performances of Felix Mendelssohn’s final completed oratorio, Elijah, all taking place this coming November 5? It’s not as though there’s some particularly significant Mendelssohnian anniversary in the offing: he was born in 1809 and died in 1847, at age 38, 14 months after Elijah premiered, in English, at the Birmingham Town Hall, as part of the Birmingham Festival. But by one of those odd twists of planning and timing (and without any discussion among themselves), Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Pax Christi Chorale and Chorus Niagara have all scheduled the work, same day and time, as a major part of their respective 2016/17 seasons.
Chorus Niagara’s conductor Robert Cooper shrugs off the coincidence, at first: “if it’s not Mendelssohn’s Elijah, it’s Carmina Burana, one or the other – the two works seem always to collide, with several choirs doing them at the same time but it’s purely coincidence.”
Stephanie Martin and Noel Edison, on the other hand, are both entering significant anniversary seasons (20th) with their choirs – Edison with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Martin with the Pax Christi Chorale – and acknowledge that in some way that might have influenced their decisions to mount this particular work at this time. For Martin this will be her last season at the Pax Christi helm, and it’s an opportunity to revisit a work with which she has a history, with the choir, singing it before conducting it. Edison’s Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performed the work for the first time in 1933, and has remounted it regularly; “I know Elmer [Iseler] did it several times, and Sir Ernest [MacMillan],” Edison says. This will be the third time Edison himself has done it with the choir, most recently in 2009. “It’s the great choral period piece,” he says.
Interestingly, for Robert Cooper the choice to take on the work this year has very little to do with how long he has been with Chorus Niagara (one of four choral or vocal ensembles he conducts). But it has everything to do with the availability of a particular singer to sing the role of Elijah. He explains:
“Last year Chorus Niagara celebrated its first year performing in the new FirstOntario Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines, so I had other kinds of mandates regarding what we needed to perform in the first year. But I’m not going to be with Chorus Niagara forever; I’ve done the work four times already with them, and really want to do it again, it’s a magnificent score.” The very first time he did it, he explains, his Elijah was none other than Russell Braun. “Russell was a student and singing in my Opera in Concert Chorus – he was at the Glenn Gould School, and this year I thought I really want to get him back. So it’s coincidence again – the timing worked for Russell and I wanted to do it and I thought now’s the chance – now’s the time to get us back together again, because he cut his teeth for his first Elijah with me, and it’s one of his signature pieces now – he sings it all over the world. So I get him to come down to St Catharines to our new arts centre and do Elijah yet again with us.”
Singer of stature: Right from the first performance in Birmingham in 1846, the success of the oratorio has revolved around the choice and calibre of the soloists, particularly the bass-baritone that sings the title role. Mendelssohn’s Elijah at that first performance was an Austrian bass-baritone Josef Staudigl, who had become something of a fixture at Covent Garden over the preceding few years, and brought significant operatic presence to the role.
“You have to have a singer of real stature for the role,” says Cooper, “someone who has a real sense of personality, who can take charge. It’s a very operatic piece. You want someone who can stand up there and bring all of the operatic fervour that they can and I personally only use Canadian artists…there are certainly a few other gentlemen who can do it but for me Russell is the signature Elijah. So I wanted to grab him while I could.”
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Edison concurs when it comes to the type of performer needed for the role. “Our Elijah is not known in Canada at all; his name is David Pittsinger, making his role debut. When I was searching I wouldn’t say he was my first choice but I’m glad now that he is. He comes from a musical theatre and opera background and he has done some significant oratorio; he’s very well-known in the States. I definitely wanted someone with that theatrical background for this role. It’s quite an imposing role, and it’s a monumental sing, both emotionally and physically. You need somebody that has a very flexible voice and somebody that has got some good theatrical thinking about their musical phrasing because it’s a real pull-and-push piece. And it’s [a role that’s] got to connect in and out of choruses and with other singers. [Elijah] is the constant, the main voice of the oratorio. And it’s his first Elijah!”
Pax Christi’s Elijah will be Canadian Geoff Sirett. “It’s his first Elijah as well, believe it or not,” Stephanie Martin says. “I just heard him recently sing Prince Igor with Bob Cooper’s Opera in Concert (we’re all connected, here, right?)….” But in the case of Sirett, Pax Christi is actually getting all four soloists as an intriguing package deal.
Playing up the drama: Martin explains: “We have decided to play up the dramatic elements by collaborating with a wonderful young group, the Bicycle Opera Project, who basically perform new opera – a lot of new Canadian opera – so its a stretch for them to sing a big Romantic piece and it’s a stretch for us to do a bit of dramatization. It will not be operatic in the sense that there will be sets flying in and out and anything like that but I think that essentially what Mendelssohn wanted in his libretto was an exchange between characters, a meaningful dialogue, not just singing to the book or parking and barking. It was to be a real dramatic exchange between the four soloists. So BO is going to animate it in that way and we have a lighting designer. We are just trying to break down some of the conventions of oratorio that are maybe strange to a younger audience. Bicycle Opera will do this because they will really bring it off the page. So it’s a little bit of a different approach.”
The four soloists in the Pax Christi production are Bicycle Opera’s four core singers: “Geoff Sirett is our Elijah, Christopher Enns is our tenor; Larissa Koniuk (BO’s artistic director) is the soprano, and Marjorie Maltais is the mezzo. So we’ve hired the entire company…they are used to working together; they can spin ideas and when someone does something they can react because they know and trust each other very well on stage.”
The collaboration will extend to a few kinetic elements for the choir as well. “The choir’s going to try to break a few oratorio conventions. They won’t be wearing black, they’ll be dressed a little differently so the lights will reflect off them nicer, and a group of them will be doing a bit of action – not over the top but just to bring it a little bit closer to our audience, to break down that fourth wall a bit.”
Attempts to overlay operatic elements on orchestral or stand-and-sing repertoire can fail spectacularly unless the work in question suggests the need for them. There is little chance of that happening here. From the earliest days of the oratorio’s gestation, Mendelssohn appears to have been inspired precisely by the story’s most intensely dramatic elements. According to a lovely detailed preface to the New Novello Choral Edition Mendelssohn Elijah, as early as 1836 Mendelssohn was grumbling in a letter to a friend, Karl Klingemann (who was busy arranging a performance of Mendelssohn’s St. Paul in Liverpool), that he wished Klingemann “would give all the care and thought you now bestow on ‘St. Paul’ to an ‘Elijah’ or a “St. Peter,’ or even an ‘Og of Bashan’.”
And as momentum on the work built over the ensuing decade, one finds Mendelssohn’s librettist, the Rev. Julius Schubring admonishing Mendelssohn that “the thing is becoming too objective – an interesting, even a thrilling, picture…we must diligently set to work to keep down the dramatic and raise the sacred element.” To which Mendelssohn responds: “I figure to myself Elijah as a thorough prophet, such as we might again require in our own day…in opposition to the whole world and yet borne on angels’ wings…I would fain see the dramatic element more prominent, as well as more exuberant and defined – appeal and rejoinder, question and answer, sudden interruptions etc., etc.”
Edison concurs. “The principles of oratorio, chorus, soloists, orchestra, recits, arias, are all there, but for me it’s not an oratorio, it’s an opera – it is Mendelssohn’s opera. It’s through-composed, it never stops except at intermission. It chugs right along, it tells the biblical story, it’s got hellfire and brimstone, it’s all Old Testament, Book of Kings, the Psalms, the resurrection of a dead youth, the ascension of Elijah in a fiery chariot, all the components of an opera. There are love duets, like the one between the Mother and the bass, the heavenly choir and the earthly chorus…In its scope, within its oratorio confines, it’s quite operatic.”
Cooper is even more emphatic: “I’ve always had a passion for things operatic. When I was at the CBC, as you may or may not know, I created the show called Saturday Afternoon at the Opera which I produced for 30-plus years, and I’ve been with Opera in Concert for over 30 years and I’ve always loved working in the theatrical world. But when you look at that score, it’s very clear, that feeling of being through-composed. It may have 41 [separate] numbers but it’s not 41 numbers, it’s little dramatic choral scenas and they go lambasting the one into the other and that makes it hard to conduct. You really have to be on your toes and know what’s coming next to get all the transitions and the tempos. And interestingly for an oratorio of this period, you have scenes where you have the soloist with these dramatic little recitatives and arias interspersed with little choral moments of four or five measures, so it’s quite clear that Mendelssohn meant this to have the thrust and parry of an opera…it’s meant to go attacca…bang, bang, bang.”
Assembling the forces: “Bang, bang, bang” certainly describes how the first Birmingham performance must have gone, based on the forces assembled for it: an orchestra of 125 and a choir of 271 (79 sopranos, 60 male altos, 60 tenors and 72 basses).
“Pax Christi has 100 singers,” Stephanie Martin says, “but we’d never accommodate an orchestra that big (mostly because it would cost a great deal). But you see a lot of those Victorian oratorios where you do see an optional group doubling and playing to get a really huge sound. Ours will be a little bit scaled back from that, but really with modern instruments the balance is better with a smaller orchestra. In 1846, those people would probably still have been playing on gut strings, trombones with smaller bores. That makes a huge difference because Elijah is often accompanied by a chorus of trombones – modern trombone just blows the singer away. The 1846 orchestra would have been just a little bit lighter, so you could accommodate a few more players. And a lot of those back bench players would only have played at a few very climactic points when everyone is playing and it’s very exciting and the big Birmingham Town Hall organ would have been screaming away and it would have been quite grand. On our tour this summer, Pax Christi visited Birmingham because it was such a hotbed for oratorio composition and it was great to be there and see where Mendelssohn premiered Elijah, where [Hubert Parry’s] Judith was premiered, where [Elgar’s] Dream of Gerontius and Apostles were premiered…it was an amazing centre for innovation at the time.”
Edison expands: “Back in 1846 everything was much grander then, even the work itself speaks to that Victorian sentiment of grandiosity. Messiah performances were often hundreds, even thousands of people, a city endeavour where everyone was involved. So that was the thinking and the makeup of the performances back in that generation. Stephanie referred already to the development of the modern instrument; but there’s also the development of the modern singer. They are much stronger, more focussed, more educated…and I think generally more equipped as artists in a singing ensemble. Mendelssohn’s Elijah or any of those big Victorian works – they do require a certain force in order to come off the page, I mean you can’t scale it down like you’re doing a Bach motet but you don’t need quite the grand numbers that they once did. I think our orchestra for this performance is about 50 and the choir is 120, 130. But I work hard to make sure that they are thin and refined and disciplined not lazy overly cholesterol-ridden, vocally. Otherwise this Victorian writing can turn into sentimental garbage really quickly and become very saccharine. Because it’s one bloody nice tune after another. I remember Bramwell Tovey once said to me ‘I don’t know why you like this piece, Noel. It’s like God is in every bar.’”
For Cooper’s Chorus Niagara the scalability of the piece offers some extra challenges and opportunities this time round. “Well it’s a challenge for us in the Niagara region because you know for 27 years we’ve been singing in churches and we’ve always been thrilled to have our place packed, but now we’re in an 800-seat performing arts centre which requires more singers on the stage and a much larger orchestra to really give the room the velocity and the volume of the sound that you want. So we have a chorus of 100-plus at Chorus Niagara but I am also bringing in a group from Redeemer College, which is a very important Bible college down in the Niagara region with a very good music program, so they are bringing more singers to join us as well…”
Nov 5 7:30: Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Elijah. Mendelssohn. Noel Edison, conductor. Lesley Bouza, soprano; Christina Stelmacovich, mezzo; Michael Schade, tenor; David Pittsinger, bass-baritone; Festival Orchestra. Koerner Hall.
Nov 5 7:30: Chorus Niagara. Elijah. Mendelssohn. Robert Cooper, conductor. Russell Braun, baritone; Leslie Ann Bradley, soprano; Anita Krause, mezzo; Adam Luther, tenor; Niagara Symphony Orchestra; Redeemer College Alumni Choir. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.
Nov 5 7:30 and Nov 6 3:00: Pax Christi Chorale. Elijah. Mendelssohn. Stephanie Martin, conductor. Guest: The Bicycle Opera Project (Geoff Sirett, baritone; Christopher Enns, tenor; Larissa Koniuk, soprano; Marjorie Maltais, mezzo.) Grace Church on-the-Hill.
David Perlman can be reached at email@example.com.