STORY by ANGELA ALLEN
PHOTOGRAPHS by JOE CANTRELL
Growing up, the “Messiah” was a sure sign of Christmas. My mother put the well-worn LP of Handel’s three-hour sacred oratorio on the turntable and cranked up the stereo as loud as she could. Even the neighbors could hear it. I loved it. It was thrilling.
Believe me, the Georg Friderich Handel masterpiece is much better live, especially when Portland Baroque Orchestra plays it with period instruments, accompanied by four stellar soloists and the brilliant, balanced 20-strong vocal ensemble Cappella Romana as it did Dec. 8. at the capacious First Baptist Church in downtown Portland. Two other performances sold out Dec. 9 and Dec. 10.
John Butt, a Baroque scholar and musician, traveled from Scotland and conducted from the harpsichord, standing as he played and directed, and standing in for PBO’s artistic director Julian Perkins. Butt knew very clearly what he was doing with his understated and straight-ahead conducting. The musicians responded as if they’d worked with him forever.
The orchestra never suffocated the four soloists, and the chorus was like a spring of fresh water bursting from the Earth each time it sang. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” in the first part–or “Part the First” as it was originally called–was resoundingly stunning and memorable, and a precursor to the juicy chorus parts leading up to the “Hallelujah” chorus where everyone stands. Why? It’s a tradition allegedly started by the emotionally moved King George II who stood up at the London premiere in 1743 when he heard the chorus built on a Revelations verse. And when the king stands, so does everyone else — and few hesitated to remain in their seats at this performance. How can you not get on your feet with this awe-inspiring music? “And he shall reign for ever and ever. King of Kings. Lord of Lords. Hallelujah!” The music makes you want to stand up and cheer.
Rarely a year goes by without the “Messiah” making an appearance sometime during the holiday season (occasionally during Easter). And some jaded concert-goers say it’s performed ad nauseam (I’m not one of them). Telling the story of the coming of the Christian savior, his death and ascension, the piece is masterly, memorable and celebratory with few dreary moments. The only way to completely screw up Handel’s oratorio, which he wrote in 24 days and premiered in Dublin in 1742, is with a singalong, when the enthusiastic audience doesn’t know a whole note from a half note.
Thankfully, we heard the best of the best from the 19-piece Baroque orchestra, timpani and trumpets included, and the audience didn’t sing a note, though many of us were tempted. The oratorio is in English; Handel lived in England a good part of his life.
Handel’s score with a poetic libretto by the cranky Charles Jennens compiled from various verses in the Old and New Testaments makes full use of a chorus and four soloists. Tenor James Reese, who looks boyish but sings like an old pro designed to perform Baroque music, opened with the “Comfort Ye” solo. He pounced on the important words, especially verbs, and carried the narrative throughout the entire piece.
Filipino-American bass-baritone Enrico Lagasca blew the audience away with his emphatic, authoritative and expressive solos that resonated throughout the church. The audience applauded enthusiastically for him at the end of the performance. His most powerful aria was when he joined with trumpeter Kris Kwapis, playing a trumpet designed after a 1746 German instrument, and sang “The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible… .” He rolled with the trumpet and loved every moment of it. The solo was nothing short of triumphant, even with a bit of daring decoration on the word, “trumpet.” His voice was so strong that Hannah Penn, the highly skilled mezzo-soprano from Portland, sounded a bit meek singing “For he is like a refiner’s fire” after Lagasca in an earlier part. Penn’s voice grew stronger as the piece went on, and her trilling work came alive. “And the glory of the Lord is Risen upon thee” soared.
Puerto Rican soprano Camille Ortiz, visibly pregnant, sang several solos, her voice clearly dancing decoratively through them all, including in Romans’ “If God be for us, who can be against us” toward the end. Though the soloists sat in front of the stage facing the audience, standing only to sing, all were fully engaged in every moment of the work even when not performing.
The “Amen,” with Cappella Romana and the soloists climbing and descending the D Major scale in leaps and bounds, is worth waiting for, and one of the most stunning and emotive conclusions in Western music, with trumpets and timpani adding to the drama.
You don’t have to be a Christian, a church-goer, or the least bit religious to love this music. But it helps to hear it performed so authentically.