A special joy of the holiday season is the inevitable coming of the false "Messiah," that is, of amateur performances of Handel's popular oratorio.
Of course, to have church choruses preparing so important and sophisticated a work and to have sing-along "Messiahs" is to bring great art to the people in a direct and meaningful way that is unmatched in any other form (we don't, after all, have annual, act-along "Hamlets").
But it is less a joy that "Messiah"--being the sophisticated, important and hard work that it is--is also regularly butchered, to an extent that no other classical piece has to suffer. The fact is, a genuine "Messiah," one that is schooled in the performance techniques of the Baroque age and one that has the operatic quality Handel was able to infuse in the biblical texts, is wondrous rare. Such a "Messiah," or at least a reasonably close facsimile, appeared Wednesday night.
The performance, part of the series of concerts by the Philharmonia Baroque at the Irvine Barclay Theater, was conducted by Nicholas McGegan. This exciting orchestra, which McGegan founded in the Bay Area 19 years ago to play early music on period instruments, has succeeded to a degree that no other American early music ensemble can match. And its successes have been particularly impressive in Handel. McGegan has a flair for the operatic and a gift to make old music seem like living matter. For him, Handel, the Baroque's most theatrical composer, is flesh and blood; and McGegan sees to it that Handel becomes that for us as well.
A few years ago, McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque produced a recording on Harmonia Mundi that made even those who may have gotten a little too used to "Messiah" sit up and take notice. Wednesday's live performance unfortunately lacked some of the most thrilling aspects of that recording, namely its magnificent solo and choral singing and its ambitious inclusion of variant arias, allowing the listener to hear all the versions of the work Handel produced. This time, the singing was a notch or two below the best, and the oratorio was cut by about half an hour.
Still, McGegan's unreserved zest for Handel and his consummate sense of drama is so winning that the performance overcame many of its disadvantages. Perhaps the first thing that comes across in McGegan's attention to Baroque period practice--and what is invariably lost in reverential church performances--is the radical nature of the oratorio. Handel and his subtle librettist, Charles Jennens, did not simply string together devout choruses and solo arias amplifying devotional texts, they vividly dramatized the promise, announcement and reception of the Gospel; they personified the triumph over death.
And vivid drama is just what McGegan had in mind as he asked for playing and singing that was fleet, colorfully ornamented and loaded with character. There was, for instance, nothing dutifully worshipful about his "Hallelujah" chorus, here an exhilarating fugue that was a truly theatrical resolution of the conflict between the raging nations and the wrath of God.
McGegan is an inspiring conductor, and he did a fine job of inspiring lively dramatization from the solo singers, of whom soprano Dominique Labelle and tenor Jonathan Boyd were the most agile and able. Thinner in tone and less secure were mezzo-soprano Catherine Robbin and bass-baritone Daniel Lichti. The local chorus, the John Alexander Singers, is clearly not expert in period practice. But this small, select group from the Pacific Chorale does boast sparkling sopranos, and all sections clearly worked hard to capture the resplendent energy, focus and velocity that McGegan required. Sometimes they nearly did.
Old habits die hard, but there is no one better to announce and produce the gospel of the genuine "Messiah" than McGegan.