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Terfel's Towering Prophet Heads Top-Drawer Team for Collegiate Chorale "Elijah"
by Bruce-Michael Gelbert | >> see bio
Bryn Terfel - Photo courtesy Cohn Dutcher Associates
If anyone has the voice and presence to make a convincing, towering Biblical prophet of God, protagonist of "Elijah," Felix Mendelssohn's mid-19th century, Victorian era tribute to George Frideric Handel's Baroque oratorios, it is Bryn Terfel, the Welsh star bass-baritone, as he proved at the opening of the Collegiate Chorale's season, at Carnegie Hall, on November 19. His distinguished colleagues here were, in the principal solo assignments, soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, alto Nancy Maultsby, and tenor Eric Cutler, assisted by bass Lester Lynch, boy soprano Daniel Castellanos, soprano Elizabeth Hillebrand, alto Sarah Bleasdale, tenor John Bernard, and bass Lawrence Long in supporting assignments, and the chorale itself and Orchestra of St. Luke's, under Music Director Robert Bass' baton. It's hard to imagine that this rendition of the oratorio could be bettered today.

Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany, to Jewish parents, who, despite their pride in their heritage, converted to Christianity to escape from the ghetto and had him baptized in a Lutheran church. In "Elijah," which Mendelssohn introduced in Birmingham, England, in 1846, and in London, before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, in 1847, the people of Israel, led by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, have turned to worshipping Baal (pronounced, with a long a, as in bale here) and other idols. It is Elijah's thankless duty to lead them back to God-twice--by proving the other deities false before going on to his heavenly reward.

In the ominous sounding introduction--even before the restless overture--with accompaniment akin to that of the supernatural moments in Mozart's "Don Giovanni," Terfel, his tone immediately full and resonant, delivered Elijah's prophecy of a drought to punish his straying people. Sent by the angels to seek shelter with a pious widow whose son is dying, Terfel's Elijah prayed for the child in warm, imposing tone and, in a beautiful piano line, announced the child's recovery.

Terfel's prophet sternly confronted Cutler's Ahab and, pitting his God against Baal, taunted Baal's worshippers mercilessly-"Call him louder!"--when their god failed to produce a miraculous occurrence. In contrasting arias, in quick succession, the singer lavished lush sound on fervent prayer "Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel," and breathtakingly expressed righteous ire in the quasi-Baroque, allegro con fuoco "Is not his word like a fire?" Asking the youth, sung by Castellanos in his piping treble, to watch for evidence of the end of the drought, Terfel continued to pray, rising to a solid baritone high F in his prayer, near the end of Part One.

When the monarchs persisted in paying homage to Baal, Terfel's weary Elijah, in the desert, avoiding Jezebel's wrath, movingly beseeched God to end his suffering in the adagio aria "It is enough," singing this section's repetition, after an allegro vivace middle section-"I have been very jealous for the Lord"-in a beautiful mezza voce. He desperately, expansively protested his enemies' apparent success, despite his efforts-"O Lord, I have labor'd in vain!"-and, hope and strength renewed, prepared to take on the idol worshippers again in an uplifting piano arioso, "For the mountains shall depart," replete with floated D, E and E-flats, with which he capped his achievement.

Principally portraying the people of Israel, Bass' Chorale, impressive in its varied role, began with a ringing, yearning lament concerning the drought-"Help, Lord!"--and, in "Yet doth the Lord," made contrastingly fiery, allegro vivace and stately, grave observations about God's wrath and mercy. As the righteous, the Chorale members hailed the restoration of the widow's son to life, in "Blessed are the men who fear Him," and, as Baal's followers, issued bouncy invocations to him-"Hear our cry, O Baal!" and "Baal! Hear and answer"-in response to Elijah's challenges. They heartily rejoiced-"Thanks be to God!"-at the end of Part One, when the drought ended.

Returning to worship Baal, the choristers threatened Elijah in "Woe to him," an angry fugue, but, as an angelic choir, echoing Hong, Hillebrand and Maultsby's hushed and exquisite, a cappella "Lift thine eyes," comforted the despairing prophet, as he slept, with a lulling "He, watching over Israel," and encouraged him to persist in a gentle "He that shall endure." It was the chorus' responsibility, stirringly and then rapturously, to bear witness to God's presence in "Behold, God the Lord," and to join the quartet of female soloists in an ethereal "Holy, holy, holy is God the Lord," complete with Hong's trills.

The Chorale jubilantly hailed Elijah's triumph-"Then did Elijah"-and, in the finale, celebrated God's welcoming the prophet into Heaven-"But the Lord from the north"-and, after Hong, Maultsby, Cutler and Lynch quietly rejoiced-"O come, everyone that thirsteth"-praised God in a rousing final fugue, "And then shall your light break forth." A program note found that "[t]he finale links Elijah with the Messiah's coming." Sorry, not to these Jewish ears.

Hong, as the widow, brought pathos to her plea for help with her dying son-"Help me, man of God"-and, as one of the people of Israel, exhorted her people, in bright, pure tone, to heed God's commandments in the adagio "Hear ye, Israel!" and majestic "I am He that comforteth," at the start of Part Two.

Besides stirring her people up against Elijah, as a fierce and forceful Jezebel, Maultsby in warm tone, delivered angelic instructions to the prophet and a firm warning-"Woe unto them"-to those who would forsake God.

Besides depicting a brash Ahab, Cutler lent the part of the pious Obadiah an ingratiating lyric tenor, urging the people to keep the faith, in a romantic operatic-style "If with all your hearts," and bidding Elijah save himself from Jezebel, in "Man of God, now let my words be precious." Near the end of the evening, in "Then shall the righteous shine forth," Cutler exultantly reported on Elijah's ascent to Heaven.

The Collegiate Chorale's season continues with Ernest Bloch's "Sacred Service" and Leonard Bernstein songs at the Central Synagogue, on 55th Street at Lexington Avenue, on February 11 at 8 pm; Bernstein's "White House Cantata," with Dwayne Croft, Emily Pulley, Anita Johnson and Robert Mack, at Lincoln Center's Rose Theatre on March 31 at 8 pm; and Handel's "Jupiter in Argos," with Elizabeth Futral, Heidi Grant Murphy, Jennifer Larmore, Rufus Müller, and Valerian Ruminski, at Avery Fisher Hall on April 28 at 8 pm. For ticket information, call 646/792-2373 or go to www.collegiatechorale.org.

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