Dallas — We’ve grown accustomed to thinking of Messiah as a Christmas oratorio, and certainly there are no shortage of performances of Handel’s iconic piece during the Christmas season. I can think of no three-hour piece other than opera that regularly packs concert halls, Christmas after Christmas. But most of the music in Messiah (there is no “the”) is in fact about the Easter season—while there are arias and choruses in Part One that prophesy and describe the birth of the infant Christ, by the end of Part Two, the crucifixion and ascension have occurred, and Part Three prophesies the Second Coming.
Sunday’s performance was a collaborative effort between Dallas’s Orpheus Chamber Singers and Ars Lyrica Houston. The two groups performed Messiah Saturday evening in Houston, then traveled to Dallas for the Sunday performance.
Thus, while some abbreviated Christmastime performances of the oratorio include only Part One (and the de rigueur “Hallelujah” chorus from Part Two), performing the entire oratorio at Easter is more apt.
And what a performance it was. From the opening orchestral Sinfonia to the final “Amen” in the last chorus, “Worthy Is the Lamb,” this Messiah transfixed.
Conductor John Butt stood at a double manual harpsichord, raised on a platform, in order to conduct. His preparation of the orchestra and singers was clearly meticulous, with carefully nuanced details of tonal color, dynamic changes, and phrasing.
The chorus itself, comprised of the Orpheus Chamber Singers, was radiant, with the precision and musicality we’ve come to expect of them.
There were some differences from the typical contemporary performance—the “Refiner’s fire” aria in Part One, these days often sung by the bass for an appropriate gravitas, was on this occasion sung by countertenor Jay Carter. I was momentarily skeptical of this choice, until Carter opened his mouth. His singing gave me chills.
The bass soloist, Curtis Streetman, was a formidable presence, too, with an impressive low range until the end of the performance, when his voice began to sound tired and less secure. It’s surprising we didn’t hear more such issues, given the marathon of two Messiah performances and a journey from Houston to Dallas in 24 hours. Tenor Aaron Sheehan has a Baroque-ready voice— beautiful even when unadorned with vibrato. Soprano Melissa Givens does not have a huge voice, but she has lovely legato phrasing in runs. Her arias included some issues with balance, with the orchestra sometimes dominating overmuch. Adam Gordon’s solo turn on natural trumpet in the bass aria “The trumpet shall sound” was one of the best I’ve heard. Kudos to the string players, too—they’re the only ones who play virtually without ceasing for the entire three hours of the performance. And they did it two nights in a row.
This was an Easter Messiah worth hearing, no matter how familiar the music might be.