It is in the choruses that the perceptive moments emerge.
Though the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra performed Handel's Messiah Friday night at Blackhawk Church in Middleton, this work was composed for Easter, and the composer always revived it for that season. Technically, it is not an oratorio, but a grand three-part cantata, on scattered Scriptural texts organized around diverse themes.
A true oratorio, in its original Italian form and in Handel's magnificent English reinvention of it, is a narrative with characters, in a (generally) sacred drama. Messiah has no story or characters. It is also seriously overshadowed by so many of Handel's other (real) oratorios, especially the absolutely stunning choral writing he developed for them, which puts the "Hallelujah" chorus in the basement by comparison.
Yet we have become frozen into a totally misconceived ritual. Conductors and organizations that don't make Handel's true masterpieces available to the public feel that Messiah must be trundled out each year in December, in performances often of stylistic ignorance and downright diffidence.
Over the past five years, Andrew Sewell has made himself the high priest of local Christmastime Messiah rites. At least it can be said he is an astute and savvy musician. This year, with his Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and a combination of three choruses, Sewell also mustered four soloists: soprano Stacey Tappan, contralto Emily Lodine, with the trusty veterans James Doing, a tenor, and Peter Van de Graaff, a bass.
Sewell's production shows mixed awareness about what we know of the work's history and of Baroque practices. The 21-player orchestra uses Handel's own orchestration, and Sewell is stylistically observant in keeping string vibrato to a minimum. But his edition of the score favors an old-fashioned menu of contents, avoiding the variant numbers that Handel devised over the years and that are now regularly used in performances. Not responding to them leaves Part II terribly disjointed. And Part III is badly slashed. The duet, even though not listed in the printed program, is included, but its responding chorus is crudely dropped, along with the final aria that follows it.
The soloists deliver able singing, and are obviously encouraged to contribute vocal embellishments, which vary from feeble to overdone. But it is in the choruses that the perceptive moments emerge. The listed tally of choristers is 79, which could be too overwhelming. But they have been drilled admirably, with mostly secure discipline and excellent diction. Sewell has clearly given particular thought to these choruses, and especially their texts. Word emphases and inflections bring the numbers to exciting life. On the other hand, the deadly dry acoustics of Blackhawk Church strangled the choral sound on Friday, depriving it of warmth and fullness. Perhaps the ripe acoustics of the Stoughton Opera House will do the group justice tonight. The concert begins at 7 p.m.
Now, everybody, it's time for the really great Handel masterworks. How about Israel in Egypt, Saul, Samson, Belshazzar's Feast, Solomon, Theodora? Or perhaps Jephtha?