The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh stage Handel’s Messiah

Pittsburgh Symphony's Manfred Honeck Photo by Stephanie StrasburgPittsburgh, PA – Before I comment on the performance itself, there are a few things I need to get off my chest.  For the first, I turn conveniently to a remark made in this afternoon’s program by stage director Samuel Helfrich.  Mr. Helfrich–an accomplished veteran of the New York opera scene–questions whether or not building a theatrical production around a work like Handel’s Messiah, a well known and beloved oratorio, is really necessary.  To his own question, Helfrich then answers, “No, of course not,” and goes on to suggest that rather than being necessary, it is perhaps thought provoking, worthwhile, interesting and a move of distinction; setting a mark above the possible stagnation of tradition.  It turns out that some traditions are rather hard to kill, as in the case of the sweeping hallelujah chorus at the end of Part II, which prompted the audience to stand rather dutifully despite the somewhat nebulous contemporary backdrop of costumes and set pieces.

As one would be correct to presume, it was the music to which people responded, rather than the fabricated plot.  I took this move (leading up to this movement, I was wondering if people would stand at all) as an indication that most people, despite the elaborate set pieces and costumes, were in fact enjoying the work in the churches of their imaginations; in the traditional way, rebelling against whatever they were seeing in favor of the boring old Messiah they anticipate and enjoy snoozing through year after year.   Over all, I must admit I remain anchored to Helfrich’s former point, and agree that staging a work like Messiah is, in fact, unnecessary.  Throughout the performance I continued to question the role the staging played in my appreciation of the work and its profound, if not very familiar message.  The question therefore that I would pose, were I to approach a project of this magnitude, would be a question of relevance; is it helpful or distracting to stage the work?  Does it illuminate the spirit or dilute what meaning is left, despite the conservatism of tradition?  Is it really a distinct approach, or the most obvious way to challenge the approach that has brought so many people to the concert hall year after year, since the work’s premiere in Dublin, 269 years ago?  After all, isn’t it our duty as performers and scholars to train and educate our audience, rather than cater to their possible shortcomings?

Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh Photo by Stephanie StrasburgPerhaps the most tell-tale warning as to the questionable role of the staging was having been greeted at the entrance by a little sign indicating that the “performance includes prop guns, fog effects and staged violence.” Certainly, many of these things come to mind when one considers Christmas.  Mr. Helfrich’s staging varied intensely, beginning in the idyllic American 1950s, presented somewhat naively like a Norman Rockwell painting.  We then shifted to the pessimistic present day in Part II (much of which explores Christ’s suffering) and then went back in time to the early 20th century and into an immigration office in which people were being chosen at random to pass into the new world (being born again?).  Oh, except for those who did not pass the on-stage tuberculosis screening and were forced to sing “Worthy is the Lamb” from quarantined benches.

As for the performance, let me transition by applauding the colossal efforts of all involved, which were in the majority if the details, greatly successful.  I asked the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh’s Artistic Director, Betsy Burleigh, to comment on the task of preparing a choir that is largely unaccustomed to memorization, acting and movement.  Ms. Burleigh described a monumental feat, as Messiah brings forth a very different challenge than the average opera chorus due to Handel’s frequent use of repeated phrases, which mutate slightly each time.  In one instance, Ms. Burleigh described a passage in the chorus “His Yoke is Easy” in which the sopranos repeat the phrase “His burthen is light” in 16 unique variations.  The movement and blocking were taught by Attack Theater’s Artistic Director, Peter Kope, for which Ms. Burleigh prepared the group by asking the choir to walk around during their regular rehearsals.  In Ms. Burleigh’s own words, the final result was held together by the common thread of effort, time and talent from each individual singer in the Mendelssohn, and for which the choir especially deserves a special compliment.  I myself was particularly impressed by the enthusiasm and intense focus with which the choristers approached their roles, each one acting diligently and effectively communicating to me a very personal character.  Most of these people are not actors, mind you, but had me utterly convinced otherwise by the start of the show.

Unfortunately, in all the bustle of the production I did ultimately find it difficult to focus upon the music.  One thing above all that I would like to hear develop in the Mendelssohn Choir is a more focused and unique vocal identity.  Many great choirs and orchestras can be identified simply by hearing that special sound that sets them apart.  One thinks of the Vienna Philharmonic’s shortened clarinets, or the Tallis Scholars’ darkened vowels, but while the Mendelssohn performed exceedingly well and with some precision, I heard deep inconsistencies in the overall timbre, with voices emerging and in places losing control, particularly in the exposed tenor sections.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, reduced dramatically in size and set up in a corral style pit on the floor of the hall, performed very well, though there were some surprising intonation issues in the upper strings in many of the recitatives.  Music Director Manfred Honeck brought his youthful enthusiasm and joy into the hall and managed to rouse more than a few hairs on my arms in particularly dramatic moments such as the final chorus, “Worthy is the Lamb.”

The afternoon’s soloists met their roles very commendably.  Oddly, everyone seemed to get off to a weak start and I wondered early on how they would fare.  Each soloist seemed to blossom, particularly through the drama of Part II.  Contralto Lindsay Ammann commanded the stage clearly in her aria “He was Despised,” showcasing a powerful low register and versatile ability in the melismatic passages.  Tenor William Ferguson worried me early on, but performed brilliantly in his series of ariosos in Part II and in the famous duet “O Death, where is thy sting,” sung with Ms. Ammann in Part III.  Bass Philip Cutlip charmed with his rugged good looks and a strong and steady instrument, illuminating the famous aria “The trumpet shall sound,” in Part III.  Soprano Laura Heimes rounded out this ensemble of capable soloists with an impressive range and versatility, which roused cries of admiration from the house during the final curtain call, shortly after her final aria, “If God be for us.”

I must say, while the entire cast performed beautifully over all, the brightest star of the evening was an unexpected soloist from the choir, countertenor Andrey Nemzer, who stepped forth to deliver the aria “He shall feed his flock,” toward the end of Part I.  A new addition to the choir, Mr. Nemzer cut over the orchestra and through the house with laser precision and a subtle artistry that illuminated his brief aria magnificently.  During a conversation at intermission with the Mendelssohn Choir’s Executive Director, Mary Ann Lapinsky, I found out that Mr. Nemzer recently won first prize in the Mildred Miller International Voice Competition (Pittsburgh, PA) and has recently advanced in the Metropolitan Opera Audition for the Pittsburgh District.  I am excited to see where his voice carries him.

All together, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s staged Messiah, was a valiant effort and consistent with Maestro Honeck’s obsessive interest in seeking out new ways to present old classics.  I would have to describe most of the afternoon as having been peculiar at best, complimented by the fine talents of all involved.  I am eager to get back to the music, and look forward to the PSO’s next choral offering, Brahms’ German Requiem.

Photo by Stephanie Strasburg

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