In singing Handel's "Messiah," there's the giant-size traditional way, the itty-bitty purist way and apparently the Roger Wagner way, which nodded at both approaches without satisfying either Saturday afternoon at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.
Wagner led a period-size orchestra of 26 players--mostly strings--from the Pacific Symphony and a decidedly 19th-Century, mammoth choral force of 198 singers--48 drawn from the Pacific Chorale and 150 from something called the Orange County Choral Conductors' Guild Massed Chorus. Massed indeed.
Fortunately, Wagner was mindful of the need to preserve a reasonable balance between instruments and voices and to maintain clarity of textures, so he used the full choir sparingly, for big numbers such as the "Hallelujah!" chorus, which emerged thick and turgid. Otherwise, the Pacific Chorale members carried the choral burden, with Wagner strangely damping them down or else willfully having them punch out words in "He Trusted in God."
His tempos were stylishly brisk, phrasing was generally kept short, except for retards in cadences; and, in another bow toward practices of the composer's day, Wagner encouraged the soloists to embellish their lines freely.
He took a number of traditional cuts in the score, although given some of the vocalists' insecurity, dropping middle sections of "Behold, and See If There Be Any Sorrow" or "The Trumpet Shall Sound" may have been wise. But fracturing the score also created awkward transitions, and virtually nothing could redeem the oddly truncated ending of "Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage."
Of the widely uneven soloists, soprano Annie Kim was the most secure and interesting, embellishing lines with virtuosity and indulgence. Tenor Chris Bowman sounded pale. Bass Hal Blair was virtually somnolent.
Mezzo-soprano Lou Robbins encountered extreme vocal difficulties, though she may have been distracted by the loud shutter noise coming from a Pacific Symphony house photographer. Certainly members of the audience were.
However, none of the vocalists interpreted their texts tellingly, and their pronunciation was occasionally mannered. Incidentally, the microphone that all but Kim sang into was reportedly for a private study recording made by the orchestra.
The ensemble played with warmth and spirit. Marvel Jensen provided attractive harpsichord accompaniment, though her playing was swamped whenever the full-size choir sang.
The Segerstrom Hall audience was so routinely appreciative--applauding after every aria and chorus--that Wagner asked people to desist before he continued with the second half of the concert. But he gave them a lollipop, too, by repeating the "Hallelujah!" chorus as a sing-along encore, with cacophonous results.