Soloists bring operatic drama to MOB’s season-opening “Elijah”

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
September 17, 2017

One could hardly have wished for a grander kickoff to Music of the Baroque’s 47th season than the blazing performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah presented Saturday night at the Harris Theater.

The concert–which also effectively launched Chicago’s fall music season–looked promising on paper with a starry lineup of soloists. But under the direction of Jane Glover–marking her 15th season as music director–the evening turned into a surprisingly exciting and compelling experience. One more performance tonight in Skokie and it’s definitely worth the drive.

MOB’s new executive director Declan McGovern made a brief curtain speech, emphasizing that he hopes to continue the musical excellence of the organization under his predecessor Karen Fishman–who was in attendance as a civilian–while bringing new and younger audience members into the patron fold. Saturday’s performance likely made many new fans, showing the heights MOB can reach on its finest nights.

Some locals grumble about Music of the Baroque performing 19th-century music but as McGovern recently pointed out, if any post-Baroque oratorio belongs in the organization’s wheelhouse, Elijah does. It was Mendelssohn who famously revived Bach’s St. Matthew Passion from century-old obscurity, and the influence of the Bach Passions and Handel oratorios is manifest throughout Elijah, albeit cast in the composer’s more Romantic idiom.

Premiered in 1846–a year before Mendelssohn’s early death at 38–Elijah was an instant success from its London debut and extensively performed in the century after around the world. In recent decades the oratorio has declined in popularity, perhaps partly due to a Victorian piety less in synch with our skeptical age. Also Elijah has its undeniably creaky moments, largely due to the episodic libretto, which strings together disparate episodes from the celebrated prophet’s life.

Musically, however, Mendelssohn’s oratorio remains among his finest works, the score divided skillfully between soloists, chorus and orchestra, and crafted with the composer’s customary melodic inspiration, polish and ingenuity.

With a lineup of four singers who are all at home on the world’s leading opera stages, Saturday night’s concert was no sterile churchy rendering but a full-blooded, operatic performance.

From his introduction, Eric Owens proved ideal casting in the role of the Hebrew prophet. While his bass-baritone lies a bit low for this assignment, Owens brought a patriarchal gravitas and Biblical fervor to Elijah’s pronouncements, as with his powerful denouncing of the Israelites’ idolatrous worship of Baal. Yet he also conveyed a touching world-weary expression, bringing hushed sorrow to “It is enough” and Elijah’s moving farewell. Owens sang with commanding tone and robust voice throughout, which bodes well for his return to the role of Wotan in Lyric Opera’s Die Walküre next month.

The other soloists were on the same vocal and dramatic level, each assuming a variety of roles.

Susanna Phillips brought customary purity of tone and lyric radiance to “Hear ye, Israel; hear what the Lord speaketh.” Phillips and Owens enjoyed great success last December in Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera; one got a sense of that close theatrical collaboration in Phillips’ dramatic dialogue with Owens’ Elijah as the Widow whose son the prophet raises from the dead.

Elizabeth DeShong’s commodious, wide-ranging mezzo made the most of her opportunities, vehemently inveighing against Elijah as Queen Jezebel and singing the arioso, “Woe unto them who forsake Him” with rapt expression and a contralto-like depth of tone.

Tenor William Burden had less to do but rounded out the soloists splendidly in their quartet moments and brought a warm lyric sincerity to the role of Obadiah. Young treble Benedict Santos Schwegel contributed aptly piping tone to his brief appearance as The Boy.

Glover is often at her best in epic challenges like Elijah and so it proved again. In MOB’s first Elijah in 26 years, Glover’s firm direction maintained crackling dramatic momentum throughout the long work yet relaxed seamlessly to allow the soloists room for expressive breadth in their arias. Balancing was exemplary with orchestra, chorus and soloists held in a finely calibrated equilibrium.

The orchestra played with customary sheen and vitality, with notably incisive violins and clarion trumpet work by Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer.

Under William Jon Gray, the MOB Chorus was just as vividly characterized in their appearances as the soloists. The ensemble sang with bitter vehemence in “He mocketh at us!” and brought unhinged ferocity to “The fire descends from heaven,” yet delivered majestic, spiritual triumph to the final choruses.