Sunday, 9 December 2012

A Mellow Messiah

 Bill Rankin

The Messiah I heard at Edmonton's Winspear Centre was verging on mellow. The sounds of malicious scourging and contemptuous expectoration were mainly left out in favour of pleasant, but stolid, performance under the direction of renowned lutenist Stephen Stubbs, who coaxed a gentle Messiah from the Edmonton Symphony (with loads of subs) and a cobbled-together choir anchored by the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers.
Canadian tenor Colin Balzer
  Tenor Colin Balzer, clearly the most experienced of the four soloists, set the tone with wonderfully soothing opening aria, Comfort ye. I'd never heard Balzer before, but he is a singer I could listen to for a whole evening. He reminded me, and not just because of his shiny pate, of Ben Butterfield. Balzer isn't quite as mellifluous as Butterfield, generally, but the UBC-trained Canadian has the qualities that make him an undeniably lyric tenor with considerable vocal character.
  An advantage of Stubbs' approach was that the soloists, and singers overall,l were given plenty of space to express and be heard. The Messiah mezzo, I've found, can be at the mercy of too exuberant an instrumental collaboration, but the young mezzo Wallis Giunta, currently attached to the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, has poise, but she will learn, as Balzer has, that the soloists in the Messiah have narrative and dramatic roles that call for more than fine vocal production and a lovely gown. When she sang "He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off His hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting," she could have mustered more indignation, not to mention an explosive "sp" in "spitting".
  Giunta did show some ambition, though, in colouring her arias with ornaments that sounded improvised. The Baroque period is known as an age of exuberance, and Guinta's impulse to find some of that spirit made her singing exciting when she took a chance or two.
  Bass-baritone Gordon Binter is on he cusp of a career as well. He participated in the 2011 Opera Nuova opera boot camp in Edmonton, and has had some gigs, including an engagement with the Montreal Symphony after winning the Grand Prize in last year’s OSM Standard Life Competition. Binter is more baritone than bass, and so when he declaimed his intentions to shake the heavens and the earth, he delivered the message but not so much the de profundis heft. (Gary Relyea has been my favourite God-imitator in local Messiahs).
Binter makes a beautiful, if not a fully basso impression, but he brought a poised performer's energy to the occasion.
  Soprano Yannick-Muriel Noah made her Edmonton debut as Tosca with Edmonton Opera last season, and she has a dominating presence on stage. It was nice to see her back singing in the city after a strong Edmonton debut in Tosca.
  There were many excellent choruses, including the rocking Amen at the end. However, Stubbs could have drawn a little more drama from the libretto, especially in choruses where the ensemble plays the role of the distainful rabble. Choruses such as "Worthy is the Lamb," though, recreated the pious elements of the text effectively.
  Listening to the holiday staple again made me want to be up there singing. Fortunately for the listeners around me, I restrained myself to mostly mouthing the words, but my wife was a little embarrassed at my sotto voce singalong to the Hallelujah chorus.