By Perry Tannenbaum
Until my first year of college, I thought I knew all that operatic singers and composers could do. My parameters were set by the matinee performances of the Metropolitan Opera and the iconic Texaco broadcasts. But on a freezing December evening at Colden Auditorium on the Queens College campus in New York, I attended my first live performance of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah, my first inkling that there were whole vocal worlds beyond Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Wagner, and Verdi. The first hint that I was in unexplored territory was when the tenor sang his “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted” air, where the melody line straightens out the crooked and makes the rough places plain.
More jarring than that was the sound of a bass baritone shortly afterwards in the “Thus Saith the Lord” recitative performing the coloratura runs declaring he will “shake all nations.” I’d previously assumed that such virtuosic runs were reserved for higher voices – almost always female. Since then, I rarely allow a Yuletide season to go by without revisiting Handel’s most frequently performed oratorio. During those years, a couple of trends have impacted how we hear the operas and oratorios by Baroque and pre-Romantic composers. Both were in evidence as Christopher Warren-Green, for the first time in his eight seasons as music director of the Charlotte Symphony, conducted Messiah at the Knight Theater.
Both trends, when they hit, were championed in the name of authenticity. The first had to do with the modern tendency to perform Early and Renaissance music on modern instruments with larger orchestras. Authenticists trimmed the size of their orchestras and brought back original instruments. Then came the countertenors to further shake up authentic performance. Although Alfred Deller was established in his career in the late 1940s, but there was no mass influx of countertenors, reclaiming the roles originally assigned by early opera composers to castrati, until at least 50 years later.
Charlotte Symphony subscribers may have been surprised to see countertenor Brennan Hall singing the alto parts formerly taken by contraltos or mezzo-sopranos, but those who were knowledgeable could hardly have been shocked. In years gone by, purists spearheading the authentic instruments trend might have bridled at the idea that Warren-Green was bowing to ancient practice by trimming the size of his orchestra without adapting original instruments, but the requisite treaties in those wars were tacitly signed a couple of decades ago.
The zest that Warren-Green brought to the task wasn’t fully manifested until we reached the mighty “Hallelujah Chorus” at the end of Part 2. Somehow, while the audience was rising to their feet, two trumpeters and timpanist Leonardo Soto made their way through the Knight Theater’s acoustic shell, filling out the Symphony ensemble to 29 members. The hall shook with the sound of the orchestra and the more than nine dozen singers of the Symphony Chorus. Warren-Green was transported enough at one point to leap into the air, and the collective power of his “Lord of Lords” sent chills through me.
There was not only thunderous applause at the conclusion but also bows from the orchestra, the chorus, and the soloists, though Part 3 still lay ahead. More chills came with the tender contrast of soprano Kathryn Mueller singing “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” after we were back in our seats. I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard Mueller’s last phrase, “the first fruits of them that sleep,” delivered with such beguiling fructose.
Those dramatic contrasts typified Warren-Green’s approach. Tempos were quicker than we usually hear on the familiar “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” and “All We Like Sheep,” further lightened by a noticeably more staccato attack from the singers. Yet the excellent tenor, William Hite, could follow the choir’s gamboling “Sheep” with an unusually strong rendition of the “All They That See Him” recitative. Other moments foreshadowing the “Hallelujah” thunder were the declamatory “The Lord Gave the Word,” a choral segment that usually escapes notice, and Symphony’s fierce introduction to bass baritone Troy Cook’s “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together?”
Cook seemed to grow continuously in power throughout the evening. His “Thus Saith the Lord” was more stolid than the best I’ve heard, not nearly in the same class as his “Why Do the Nations?” after intermission. I had already hoped for mightier deeds when I heard Cook’s unexpected sweetness in his “For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth” recitative. But the baritone’s finest moments came later with the recitative and air that culminated in “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” volleying back and forth with principal trumpeter Richard Harris, who was in fine form. Along with Mueller’s sweetness, these two men conspired to prove that Part 3 isn’t at all an anticlimax after the mighty “Hallelujah.” Warren-Green discreetly axed four segments from Part 3, “Oh Death, Where Is Thy Sting?” the most familiar, to help keep that notion afloat.
The other soloists distinguished themselves before Part 3. Hall had a more suitable range for “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion” than many contraltos I’ve heard, though his runs weren’t the most even. Together he and Warren-Green emphasized the 3/4 meter of this air more delightfully than I could recall hearing before. The countertenor was most affecting after intermission when he sang “He Was Despised and Rejected,” layering on a superb soulfulness as he sang the verse from Isaiah for the last time.
I was even more impressed by Hite’s emotional range, whose power was the last of his attributes to be revealed. The tenderness of the tenor’s rendition of “Comfort Ye, My People” – a slight sob detectable in his delivery – served instant notice that this was going to be a special Messiah, one that respected the Charles Jennens libretto culled from the Old and New Testaments, and Hite’s “Ev’ry Valley” signaled that it would be wrapped in joy. Anyone who doubts that Warren-Green adores this score only needs to hear him conduct it.