Schultz, Fujimura, Bruns, Fischesser, Luisi / Philharmonia Zurich
Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Oratorio “Elias” (Elijah), op.70, MWV A 25

Opera, Zurich, 2018-07-15

4-star rating


2018-07-21 — Original posting

Fabio Luisi, © BALU Photography, all rights reserved
Fabio Luisi (© BALU Photography, all rights reserved)

Introduction

This was the last day of the season 2017/2018 at Zurich Opera House. The last event of the season of course was a full opera (Verdi’s “La traviata”)—but at 11:15 a.m., the same day (a splendid, warm summer Sunday) also featured the seventh Philharmonic Concert. This particular concert also formed part of the celebrations around the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: in Zurich, these extend from 2017 up into the year 2019. With the popular oratorio “Elias” (“Elijah”), op.70, by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847), the work was a good fit to these festivities (see below for details).

This concert was sold out. The main reasons for the popularity must have been Mendelssohn’s oratorio, the popularity local of the Philharmonia Zurich, its General Music Director (GMD), Fabio Luisi (*1959), as well as that of the main singer, Christof Fischesser, see below.

At this point, it may be worth mentioning that after the season 2020/2021, Fabio Luisi will step down from his position in Zurich. As his successor, Gianandrea Noseda (*1964) will become GMD at the opera, starting in 2021.

I’ll mention and discuss the other artists in the context of the performance, below.


The Composition

The Oratorio “Elias” (Elijah), op.70, MWV A 25 is a work that Mendelssohn finished composing in 1846, after working on this for 10 years. The first performance was in English and in England, in Birmingham. After the premiere, Mendelssohn added some revisions. The revised version saw several performances in England. The composer than prepared a German version for publishing. However, he died before he had a chance to hear the composition in his native language.

Born into a Jewish family, Felix Mendelssohn received a Christian education. He was baptized Felix Jakob Ludwig, and at the same time, the by-name Bartholdy was added to his last name. In the mid-1820, Mendelssohn founded a choir with the goal to perform the major choral works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), and one of his pioneering achievements was the performance and the revival of Bach’s St.Matthew Passion, BWV 244, in 1829 (he was only 20 by then!).

It must have been Bach’s passion oratorios, as well as his contacts with the oratorios by George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759), which in Mendelssohn triggered the idea of composing his own oratorios. He ended up composing an oratorio “Paulus” (St.Paul), op.36 (1836), and his final one, “Elias” (Elijah), op.70. A third oratorio, “Christus“, remained an idea, of which only small fragments were written.

Staff

The oratorio asks for an orchestra with  2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 ophikleïde (today typically a bass tuba), timpani, strings, and organ. The organ obviously was missing here. Then, of course, there is the key role of the choir (4 up to 8 voices). At Mendelssohn’s time, it was not unusual to see choirs of several hundred singers. Plus, there is a separate choir of angels (double quartet, and sub-sets), plus roles for 4 or 5 soloists: Elias/Elijah (baritone), the Widow and a youth (both sung by the same soprano in this performance), the Queen (alto), Obadjah and Ahab (both sung by the same tenor in this performance).

The Structure

It may in parts have been Mendelssohn’s Jewish heritage / provenance  that made him select material from the Old Testament (1 Kings 17:19 and 2 Kings 2:1 and related texts, such as Psalms). The oratorio is organized in two parts, featuring 20 and 22 “numbers”:

Part I

  1. Introduction “So wahr der Herr, der Gott Israels lebet” (As God the Lord of Israel liveth)
    Overture
  2. Chorus “Hilf, Herr!” (Help, Lord!)
  3. Duet with choir “Herr, höre unser Gebet!” (Lord! bow thine ear to our prayer!)
  4. Recitative (Obadiah) “Zerreißet eure Herzen” (Ye people, rend your hearts)
  5. Aria (Obadiah) “So ihr mich von ganzem Herzen suchet” (If with all your hearts)
  6. Chorus “Aber der Herr sieht es nicht” (Yet doth the Lord see it not)
  7. Recitative (Angel I) “Elias, gehe von hinnen” (Elijah! get thee hence)
  8. Double quartet “Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen” (For he shall give his angels)
    Recitative (Angel I) “Nun auch der Bach vertrocknet ist” (Now Cherith’s brook is dried up)
  9. Recitative, aria & duet (Widow, Elijah) “Was hast du mir getan” (What have I to do with thee?)
  10. Chorus “Wohl dem, der den Herrn fürchtet” (Blessed are the men who fear him)
  11. Recitative with choir “So wahr der Herr Zebaoth lebet” (As God the Lord of Sabaoth liveth)
  12. Chorus “Baal erhöre uns!” (Baal, we cry to thee; hear and answer us!)
  13. Recitative (Elijah, Ahab) with choir “Rufet lauter! Denn er ist ja Gott!” (Call him louder, for he is a god!)
  14. Recitative (Elijah) with choir “Rufet lauter! Er hört euch nicht” (Call him louder! he heareth not!)
  15. Aria (Elijah) “Herr, Gott Abrahams, Isaaks und Israels” (Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel!)
  16. Quartet “Wirf dein Anliegen auf den Herrn” (Cast thy burden upon the Lord)
  17. Recitative (Elijah) with choir “Der du deine Diener machst zu Geistern” (O thou, who makest thine angels spirits)
  18. Aria (Elijah) “Ist nicht des Herrn Wort wie ein Feuer” (Is not his word like a fire?)
  19. Arioso “Weh ihnen, dass sie von mir weichen!” (Woe unto them who forsake him!) A
  20. Recitative (Obadiah, Elijah) with choir “Hilf deinem Volk, du Mann Gottes!” (O man of God, help thy people!)
  21. Chorus “Dank sei dir, Gott” (Thanks be to God)

Part II

  1. Aria “Höre, Israel” (Hear ye, Israel!)
  2. Chorus “Fürchte dich nicht, spricht unser Gott” (Be not afraid, saith God the Lord)
  3. Recitative (Elijah, Queen) with choir “Der Herr hat dich erhoben” (The Lord hath exalted thee)
  4. Chorus “Wehe ihm, er muss sterben!” (Woe to him, he shall perish)
  5. Recitative “Du Mann Gottes, laß meine Rede” (Man of God, now let my words)
  6. Aria (Elijah) “Es ist genug, so nimm nun, Herr, meine Seele” (It is enough, O Lord now take away my life)
  7. Recitative “Siehe, er schläft” (See, now he sleepeth)
  8. Trio “Hebe deine Augen auf zu den Bergen” (Lift thine eyes)
  9. Chorus “Siehe, der Hüter Israels schläft noch schlummert nicht” (He, watching over Israel, slumbers not)
  10. Recitative (Angel I, Elijah) “Stehe auf, Elias, denn du hast einen großen Weg vor dir” (Arise, Elijah, for thou hast a long journey)
  11. Aria (Angel I) “Sei stille dem Herrn” (O rest in the Lord)
  12. Chorus “Wer bis an das Ende beharrt, der wird selig” (He that shall endure to the end, shall be saved)
  13. Recitative (Elijah, Angel II) “Herr, es wird Nacht um mich” (Night falleth round me, O Lord!)
  14. Chorus “Der Herr ging vorüber” (Behold! God the Lord passeth by!)
  15. Quartet with choir “Seraphim standen über ihm; Heilig ist Gott der Herr” (Above him stood the Seraphim; Holy is God the Lord)
  16. Choir recitative (Elijah) “Gehe wiederum hinab! Ich gehe hinab” (Go, return upon thy way! I go on my way)
  17. Arioso (Elijah) “Ja, es sollen wohl die Berge weichen” (For the mountains shall depart)
  18. Chorus “Und der Prophet Elias brach hervor” (Then did Elijah the prophet break forth)
  19. Aria “Dann werden die Gerechten leuchten” (Then shall the righteous shine forth)
  20. Recitative “Darum ward gesendet der Prophet Elias” (Behold, God hath sent Elijah)
  21. Chorus “Aber einer erwacht von Mitternacht” (But the Lord, from the north hath raised one)
    Quartet “Wohlan, alle, die ihr durstig seid” (O come everyone that thirsteth)
  22. Chorus “Alsdann wird euer Licht hervorbrechen” (And then shall your light break forth)
    “Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord, our Creator)

Unlike in my other reviews, I’m not strictly following the chronology of the performance, but I left the above list in the review, such that in the review I can refer to specific numbers in the text below.

The Performance

Oratorio in the Opera? Oratorio as Opera?

Just like Bach, Mendelssohn never succeeded in writing a complete opera. Some people suggested that Bach’s passion oratorios actually served as substitute, i.e., that they were “hidden operas”. It could indeed have served as compromise solution that still allowed the composer to realize human drama in music, even though (certainly in Leipzig) his employment offered no such option. It is even possible that Bach’s pietistic convictions and surroundings forbade venturing into opera-writing.

In the case of Mendelssohn the reasons for not completing an opera were different, may be as simple as not finding a suitable, good libretto, or maybe just failing to find the proper circumstances (opera house, singers, etc.), and/or spending enough time in a single location, in the neighborhood of a suitable venue, etc.

Here, in any case, an oratorio was performed in an opera house, and Mendelssohn’s score includes some dramatic scenes / action. However, the performance didn’t appear like a sacrilege at all. Not only was this a pure concert performance, it also was devoid of all profanity / worldly aspects. The only exception, so to say, was how the choir entered the stage…

Setting / “Preamble”

The addition of a choir with over 100 singers required far more depth than usual (purely orchestral) Philharmonic concerts. The Philharmonia Zurich extended from the audience (above the orchestra pit) quite deep into the stage (walls and ceiling clad in black, with shiny sequins). This way, the two violin voices on the left, the violas on the right were playing in the audience. The latter sat in front of the cellos, the double basses further back, also on the right. Commonly, this setting proves a disadvantage for the violas, as they are projecting into the rear. Here, however, the placement in front of the proscenium arch fully compensated: the sound of the orchestra proved to be perfectly balanced, all voices enjoyed adequate acoustic presence.

The orchestra entered first and was greeted by the audience, and proceeded with tuning. Thereafter, the choir entered the far back of the stage—in a well-choreographed appearance: not the chaotic mingling and seat-seeking as one can often observe with lay choirs! Here, the joint choirs of the house, over 100 professional singers / trained voices—entered the stage by row, alternating from the left and from the right. This “orchestrated” experience caused murmuring and smiles in the audience: it reflected the level of quality that we expected and were going to experience in this performance. And it felt like the only / main “worldly” aspect in this concert (and, of course, the same procedure was applied after the intermission).

Christof Fischesser (© Jens Fischesser)
Christof Fischesser (© Jens Fischesser)

A Hiccup with the Role of Elijah?

Once the choir was sitting, not the soloists appeared, but the theater director, Andreas Homoki. That’s usually not a good sign. Indeed, he brought mixed news: the main singer, the baritone Christof Fischesser (Elijah), suffered from an infection and was on antibiotics. However, the message was that apparently, the singer was confident about the performance, and hence “rest assured, all will be well!”. So, luckily, Homoki’s announcement sounded more like a precaution than actual bad news!

Indeed, Christof Fischesser seemed somewhat pale, looked concerned (a tad worried?). Throughout the performance (and that’s a fair amount of singing for the baritone!), he seemed to pay extra attention not to overstrain his voice, to make sure his physical reserves would last through the entire role. Very often, prior to starting, while still sitting, he consciously took several deep breaths, pre-focusing on his upcoming part. Especially in the initial solo (#0 / Introduction), one could almost touch his worries.

Better than Feared!

Almost certainly, his singing was not quite at the level that he normally would have expected from himself. However, he is a top-class singer with plenty of experience: already in the course of his first solo (#0), and definitely during his subsequent recitative (#8), he seemed to (re-)gain confidence, firmness, and the feeling for how far he could take his voice without further damaging it. In his first longer role (#12 – #14, a central point in the oratorio) he in fact was very expressive—and impressive, indeed. Even more astounding: how he was able to change the character of his voice in #16 (recitative “O thou, who makest thine angels spirits”), where it suddenly sounded almost spooky.

Other highlights included his subtle p in #25 (recitative), and again how expressively he did the subsequent aria (#26), with excellent voice control. There was just one little (almost unnoticeable) “accident”: towards the end, his voice broke for a very short instant when he was singing pp. In #30 (recitative) he was again dramatic, though one could sense that his voice was slightly affected. Luckily, in #37, an arioso, his part is solemn, restrained, which gave his voice some relief.

Overall, even though clearly not quite at the usual / expected level, Christof Fischesser’s performance was still very impressive, with excellent stage / role presence, and certainly touching the listener: it obviously paid having a top opera singer fill the role of Elijah!

The Widow & A Youth

The South African soprano Golda Schultz (*1984, see also Wikipedia) turned out to be another highlight in a strongly performing team: a beautiful voice, equilibrated, harmonious, well-projecting, with a spectrum from lyrical to dramatic. At the end of part I (#19), where she was also the role of a youth (Knabe). I was most amazed how all of a sudden she was able to mutate her voice into the innocent, clear sound of a boy or child—without losing projection.

The Queen & An Angel

The Japanese alto Mihoko Fujimura (*1966, see also Wikipedia) sadly could not really compete with the other solo voices. Her voice sounded somewhat worn-out, and what she must have lost in firmness and volume, she was now compensating with an overly heavy, excessive vibrato. Also, especially with open vowels, she tended to lose some of the projection of her otherwise warm, expressive and dark voice.

Obadjah & Ahab

Also the tenor Benjamin Bruns (*1980) was pure pleasure to hear: an excellent, lyrical voice with a beautiful timbre, with plenty of brilliance (“ping”, as my voice teacher used to call it), controlled and well-projecting (also in soft segments), never in danger of “drowning in the masses”. It carried through the entire performance, up to #38, where my notes still mention the luminous tenor voice, the excellent messa di voce.

The Solo Quartet

One of the true highlights of the performance was the solo quartet as a group! Even though the characteristics of the voices were so vastly different, and even though the scope of Christof Fischesser’s voice was somewhat reduced, the four voices united to a wonderfully harmonious, homogeneous, well-balanced ensemble, with careful, diligent dynamic control: touching, amazing! Prime example: #15 (part  I).

Angels, Double Quartet

In addition to the four soloists and the 4- or 8-voice choir, the score also calls for a separate double quartet (SSAATTBB) of voices, for the role of the angels. In typical lay choir performances, these voices are typically performed (at least in parts) by selected singers from the choir. Here, of course, Fabio Luisi could rely upon a pool of (currently 18) excellent, young singers from Zurich’s International Opera Studio:

  • soprano: Soyoung Lee (South Korea), Natalia Tanasii (Moldavia)
  • mezzo-soprano: Gemma Ní Bhirain (Ireland), Karina Demurova (Russia)
  • tenor: Thobela Ntshanyana (South Africa), Omer Kobiljak (Bosnia / Herzegovina)
  • bass: Alexander Kiechle (Germany), Donald Thomson (Scotland / U.K.)

This (truly international!) group performed behind the double basses, between the strings and the wind instruments, on the right-hand side. This team of singers offered excellent, well-balanced ensemble sound. There were also instances where only a subset of 3 or 4 (female) voices were singing. This showed that these individual voices had little or no reason to hide behind the solo quartet: in terms of volume, timbre and overall quality, some of these voices were almost equivalent to (if not as good as) some of the soloists!

Choir

Typical for an oratorio, the choir fulfills a central role. Here, the opera house could of course rely upon its excellent opera choir. That’s an ensemble of professionals or professionally formed voices, under the direction of Janko Kastelic. That choir (60 singers) was complemented with the around two dozen voices of the extra choir, plus close to 20 female singers from a formation named SoprAlti. Altogether, there were over 100 singers at the far / rear end of the stage: excellent voices in terms of diction, articulation, plasticity, and the usual, careful dynamic control, from a sonorous pp up to an impressive, full-sounding (but never loud) ff.

Despite the large distance between conductor / strings and the choir, the coordination was excellent almost throughout the performance. The exception was a short, shaky moment in #41, where choir and orchestra were briefly drifting apart: I suspect that due to the length of the performance, the attention started to drop. However, these were professional singers, and so this only lasted a few seconds.

One little quibble: in #11 (part I), while musically correct, the ligature in “Baal_erhöre_uns” irritated me slightly—a Helvetism (influence of Swiss dialect)? I would have preferred “Baal, ‘erhöre ‘uns” (especially considering the comma!) for more clarity (and following proper German diction).

Vibrato

I had some concerns about the opera choir’s vibrato: very often in operas, choirs appear to demonstrate their professionalism through excessive vibrating. Here, however, this rarely was an issue—primarily thanks to the large size of the choir, and thanks to the placement at the rear end of the stage, which helped the mixing of voices: my perception was that of classic, well-controlled, excellent, romantic choral sound. At least, as long as the full choir was active: there bare sections where only small subsets of singers were active (e.g., in the short recitative segment at the end of #1)—and there, I did wish for more linear voicing, or no vibrato at all, maybe.

Orchestra

Supported by (and profiting from) the theater acoustics, the musicians of the Philharmonia Zurich offered a top-class performance. It was engaged, detailed and careful in the dynamics. Acoustic balance, clarity and transparency were excellent. This was the result of several factors, which all worked together: the acoustics, Fabio Luisi’s diligent dynamic control, the discipline of the orchestra. Plus, the obvious, careful adjustment of every group’s “local” dynamics, in consideration of the placement behind or in front of the proscenium arch, the orientation, etc. (see my remark above about the violas).

Under Fabio Luisi’s baton and the excellent assistance of the concertmaster, Hanna Weinmeister (pure joy to watch her lively, active “transmission / mediation” role between conductor and orchestra!), the instrumentalists were excellent and differentiated in articulation and phrasing, the coordination within the orchestra never was an issue.

Conductor  / Interpretation

Soloists, choir and orchestra all contribute to the performance of such an oratorio. Overall, however, it was clear that it was Fabio Luisi‘s “handwriting” which controlled the overall character of the interpretation: free from unnecessary pathos, but convincingly dramatic (this was in the opera, after all!), often enthralling (especially in the big choral scenes)—never cool and sober, but intensely emotional. With a safely guiding hand and excellent sense for drama, Luisi compellingly built up the performance to dramatic highlights, pivotal scenes, and from there onto the emotional and musical climax in each of the parts.

Unlike what is often observed in lay choir concerts, in this performance, there was no excess indulging in common romantic phrases. Quite to the contrary: the performance made me entirely forget that the oratorio is full of Mendelssohn’s typical melodic and harmonic topoi!


Conclusion

An excellent oratorio performance overall, with very few, overall negligible shortcomings! And once more, the Philharmonia Zurich demonstrated a superb performance, technically, musically and emotionally compelling!


Addendum:

For this concert I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.



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