It has been a busy season in Madison for oratorio masterworks. In early April, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir performed Haydn's The Creation. Before that, in November, the UW's Choral Union presented Handel's blockbuster, Israel in Egypt. And now the Choral Union is following up with Mendelssohn's Elijah. The program debuted Saturday in the Humanities building's Mills Hall.
Once one of the most popular and frequently performed of all choral works, Elijah has easily been shrugged off in more recent years for its pompous Victorian religiosity. And its text, full of Old Testament blood-and-thunder bluster, intolerance and hatred, is pretty dated now, save perhaps for religious fundamentalists -- who are probably too busy listening to "Christian" pop music anyway. But there is no getting around the fact that Mendelssohn was one of the small handful of supreme masters of choral writing, and Elijah is his supreme accomplishment in this idiom.
Speaking of busy, it has been such a weekend for UW faculty baritone Paul Rowe. On Friday evening, and then Sunday afternoon, he sings Baron Duphol in the Madison Opera's production of Verdi's La Traviata, but on Saturday and Sunday evenings, he shifts gears to sing the title character in Mendelssohn's oratorio. Maybe not too great a shift. One could find parallels in dignified arrogance between the Baron, the malicious keeper of a Parisian demimondaine, and the sanctimonious obsessiveness of the greatest of Hebrew prophets. But Rowe does, indeed, become a palpably different personality between the two.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck, another quadruple-booker between Traviata and Elijah, brings glowing warmth to her solo stints, while full-voiced Celeste Fraser -- taking the soprano solos on Saturday, as Kristin Schwecke does on Sunday -- is particularly moving as the widow with the dead son. And faculty tenor James Doing is always so reliable that it seems needless to say.
The UW Chamber Orchestra gives generally solid support, despite a few muffed entrances on Saturday. But the star of the show is most clearly the Choral Union. One hundred forty-four singers strong, by my count, it is wonderfully firm and disciplined, thanks to conductor Beverly Taylor's leadership. But its sonority is the thing. What a thrill to hear the majestic power, grandeur, and sonority of its massive yet focused singing! Yes, the too-bright acoustics of Mills Hall can make such sound overwhelming, but perhaps that is the point.
A performance like this may or may not persuade you to worship God, but it will surely make you venerate, and thank, Felix Mendelssohn. Elijah is too rarely performed these days, so there is a particular reason for trying to catch the remaining presentation on Sunday evening at 7:30.