One of the earmarks of a great musical work is that it can flourish in many different interpretations — as Handel’s “Messiah” assuredly does. In Seattle, we’ve heard small-scale ultra-baroque period versions of the “Messiah”; large-scale romanticized productions; speedy ones and soulful ones, and almost everything in between.
This year’s Seattle Symphony “Messiah” production, however, is a first: a performance that has a strongly operatic underpinning, yet some of the most unified and convincing baroque-style bowing the Seattle Symphony strings have ever mustered. Conductor Gary Thor Wedow, a regular at Seattle Opera and also an evident master of the “Messiah” score, put a persuasive and powerful stamp on the Handel classic.
Wedow conducted the recitatives and arias mostly from the harpsichord, where he is a master stylist in achieving just the right fluid interconnections; he is supportive but never intrusive. The orchestra’s strings played with very limited vibrato, and sometimes with a unified crescendo on the held notes (most effectively in the chorus “Surely He hath borne our griefs”).
There was a lot of tempo variety, sometimes startling in its effect — like the odd pauses in the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Some sections were slow; others were surprisingly speedy. The soprano aria “Rejoice greatly” may have set a new land-speed record.
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Enhancing the operatic feel of this production were the soloists, all with substantial opera credentials.
Tenor Andrew Stenson, a former Seattle Opera Young Artist who was one of the stars of the company’s recent mainstage “Daughter of the Regiment,” was a lyrically beautiful soloist whose initial “Comfort ye, my people” was eclipsed only by the truly heartbreaking “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart.”
The beautiful, crystalline soprano of Amanda Forsythe sounded remarkably agile in her arias, which were freely ornamented (right up to a high C). Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór sang expressively, but the music was scored too low to suit her vocal range.
Kevin Burdette, who has been heard in several Seattle Opera productions, delivered tremendous drama and impact in his majestic opening recitative, “Thus saith the Lord,” and his florid account of the final aria, “The trumpet shall sound” (with solo trumpeter David Gordon).
The Seattle Symphony Chorale, prepared by Joseph Crnko, sang with impressive clarity and precision, and was highly responsive to Wedow’s direction. “For unto us a child is born” demonstrated a well-schooled ensemble that was fleet, light, strongly accented, and airy, with lots of space between notes and phrases.
The audience was unusually predisposed toward applause between movements, a tendency that probably could have been headed off by more adroit stage-managing connecting the various choruses and recitatives.
Or maybe this “Messiah” is just such a crowd-pleaser that extra applause is inevitable. Go if you can; you won’t be disappointed.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.