Along with “The Nutcracker” ballet and staged adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Handel’s “Messiah” oratorio has become standard programming for the winter holidays, performed by professional and amateur groups alike.
Unlike the ballet and the story, however, Georg Friedrich Handel’s choral extravaganza is at its sumptuous best when viewed in settings that favor its religious heart and support its musical possibilities.
Using texts drawn from the King James version of the Bible and excerpts from “The Book of Common Prayer,” Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens, created a setting that slips from Old to New Testament and back again with an almost seamless ease, blending the prophecies of Isaiah, Zechariah, Malachi and Haggai with the accounts of Matthew, Luke, Paul and others.
Despite most performances of “Messiah” during Handel’s lifetime having taken place in Covent Garden Theatre, and the fact that the piece remains quite at home in secular venues, a special relationship has developed between sacred spaces and the oratorio.
That’s part of the reason why Sunday night’s performance of “Messiah” in Our Lady of Victory Basilica by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus rang so true.
The space is huge, massive and ornate, fitting for a score that could use the same adjectives.
That inspiration played a part in the construction of both items is a given.
One of the surprising things about the concert was that the acoustics in the cathedral were not as reverberant as one might be justified in expecting. The ceilings are high, the interior walls are hard, and the space between them is wide. By all rights, echoes should have inhibited hearing the music clearly, but the mitigating factor might have been the number of warm-blooded bodies filling the pews and cushioning the sound.
Gerald Gray led the BPO and the chorus, guiding them with a deftly wielded baton. The results were quite impressive for the most part, although it took a few minutes to get things rolling in the beginning.
The four soloists – Colleen Marcello (soprano), Victoria Vargas (mezzo-soprano), Joe Dan Harper (tenor) and Brian Zunner (baritone) – all had their moments in the spotlight, despite Handel’s predilection toward Italianate arias that often stretch a syllable over hill and dale before taking a breather.
Marcello, who recently appeared in Opera Sacra’s production of the Gaetano Donizetti opera “Maria Stuarda,” has a beautiful top end, something that she relied on when she sang, “There were shepherds abiding in the field.”
Harper’s opening salvo in the oratorio’s “Comfort ye …” showcased a fluid delivery, while Vargas comported herself well through the bulk of her opportunities, and Zunner made due with his less featured spots.
And then there was the choir. Yep. They did a generally splendid job, building up to the audience’s favorite moment in any rendering of the score, the “Hallelujah” chorus.
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
Performance of Handel’s “Messiah” on Sunday evening in Our Lady of Victory Basilica, 767 Ridge Road, Lackawanna.