Handel/Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Gimeno, conductor; Lauren Fagen, soprano; Stephanie Wake-Edwards, mezzo-soprano; Michael Colvin, tenor; Elliot Madore, baritone; Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Jean-Sébastien Vallée conductor. Dec. 17, 2022 — continues until Dec. 21, 2022, Roy Thomson Hall. Tickets here.
Is there a more popular classical vocal work for the Christmas Season in the English-speaking world than Handel’s Messiah (1742)? It’s a rhetorical question, and the answer is a resounding NO. There are other beloved works in celebration of the birth of Christ, such as Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium (1734), or Berlioz’s L’enfant du Christ (1854), but none approaches the sheer popularity of the Handel masterpiece.
If you like Messiah, you might have seen the YouTube video of a flash mob singing the Hallelujah Chorus in a shopping mall in Welland, Ontario in 2010. This spontaneous burst of song was in fact staged by Chorus Niagara. When journalist Robert Harris reported on it a few years ago, he noted that the clip had a stunning 47 million views. I revisited it just now and to my astonishment, that number has grown to a staggering 55 million!
In Toronto, there are always several Messiah versions each Christmas, from the intimate Tafelmusik to the Cecil B. DeMille version — okay, I say that in jest — offered by the big Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the 110-member Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. For me, the TSO version has been the gold standard. That said, it should be noted that the original Messiah as intended by Handel was performed by an orchestra of 20 and a choir of 15, so the chamber version is more historically authentic — chacun à son goût.
The TSO has been presenting Messiah with a reduced orchestra in recent years, although the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir remains full sized. Some may feel that this creates an imbalance, but to my ears, the sublime sound of the TMC under the leadership of Jean-Sebastien Vallée is worth its weight in gold. In any case, no matter how your slice it, Messiah serves to warm the heart and lift the spirit, much needed today given the current world chaos and the immense sufferings of the victims of war.
I attended opening night on Saturday, the first of five performances. This year, the quartet of soloists is a mix of home-grown talent (tenor Michael Colvin and baritone Elliot Madore) and invited guests (soprano Lauren Fagan and mezzo Stephanie Wake-Edwards). TSO Music Director Gustavo Gimeno writes in the program that this run represents his first time conducting the long version. Judging by the opening night performance, he led the forces in a polished and idiomatic reading of the score, without the slightest hint that he is a Messiah newbie.
A full version of Messiah is nearly three hours, so there were judicious cuts to trim it to two hours and fifteen minutes, including a short intermission. We were not deprived, however, as all the favourite arias were there. The Mendelssohn Choir was placed onstage behind the orchestra instead of in the choir lofts, and the soloists were on either side instead of in front of the orchestra, giving a more intimate feel to the proceedings. Given the cavernous Roy Thomson Hall, I would have preferred a larger orchestra, but Maestro Gimeno managed to keep the best possible voice-orchestra balances.
From the first downbeat on, the pristine sound of the TSO was a balm to the ears, enhanced in no small way by the mellow warmth of the TMC. The quartet of soloists was a fine one. Both women are young singers with fresh, youthful voices and promising careers. British soprano Lauren Fagan, whose voice arguably has the most ping of the four, sang with a combination of power, beauty, and a strong top. British mezzo Stephanie Wake-Edwards offered an equally attractive, if mellower sound. Their voices blended beautifully in “He shall feed His flock.”
The two Canadian men hail from the GTA, and it was good to have them back in town. Tenor Michael Colvin, who is enjoying an international career, sang “Ev’ry valley” with clarion tone and enviable agility. Baritone Elliot Madore is another who has made it big internationally. While his lyric baritone isn’t the stentorian, fire-and brimstone bass one has come to expect in Messiah, he acquitted himself wonderfully in the showstopping “The trumpet shall sound” with warm tone and a surfeit of expression.
There was an intermission after Part One. If truth be told, in abridged versions a pause really isn’t all that necessary except for those needing a washroom break. To me, an intermission breaks the magic spell. A few more observations — listening to the chorus singing “All we like sheep,” it brought back fond memories of the Sir Andrew Davis’s quirky but funny version at the TSO a few years back. Except for those keen on authenticity, Sir Andrew’s tinkering with the score brought much merriment to the audience, including yours truly. I also missed the strategically placed trumpets. But, any Messiah performance is special and a blessing. The Hallelujah Chorus never ceases to bring a lump in my throat.
On that note, I offer my best Holiday and New Year Greetings to LvT readers.
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