Dallas — The Dallas Symphony is presenting just two performances this weekend of Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. This is the Texas premiere of the work, 117 years after its composition. So those concertgoers unable to hear this weekend’s performances may be out of luck, at least in this lifetime. It's part of the Soluna: International Music and Arts Festival.
And this lifetime, and what happens afterward, is the conceit for Elgar’s work, as Wayne Lee Gay explains in his preview here. Using a poem by English Victorian writer and Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman as the text, this is a magnificent large-scale choral work (Elgar evidently disliked the designation “oratorio”) that never abuses that scale. Yes, it has a 200-voice chorus of adults, a children’s chorus, three vocal soloists, two harps, an organ, and of course an orchestra, albeit one with moderate-sized string sections. But it’s never bombastic, never overdone.
Gerontius has two parts: before intermission, Gerontius is a dying old man. Afterward, he is in the afterlife—or almost. Gerontius and the Angel discuss theology, Gerontius gets to glimpse God (and be judged), and then the Angel whisks him off to Purgatory, tenderly reassuring him that he will soon be redeemed. The piece ends with the “Choir of Angelicals” chanting “Amen” in the triumphant key of D Major.
While the work is distinctly Catholic, it wrestles with questions that all people have, no matter their religion or lack thereof: what is dying like? And what happens afterward? While “Gerontius” provides satisfying, definitive answers to these questions that are comfortably in line with Catholic theology, remember that Gerontius’ story isn’t over at the end of the poem or the composition. He still has to navigate what is evidently a literal lake until enough Masses are said for him; only then can he be released from the “bed of sorrow” that is Purgatory.
So, how did the Dallas Symphony do, under conductor Jaap van Zweden? For the most part, it was glorious—enough that I’ll be going for a second listen on Saturday, which I hardly ever do. There were some ensemble and even a few pitch issues uncharacteristic of the DSO or the Dallas Symphony Chorus, but considering that few if any of the orchestra or chorus members have performed the piece before, that is perhaps unsurprising. (I’ll be interested to see whether some of these issues right themselves on Saturday.)
The chorus, under director Joshua Habermann, was in general well-prepared—the sopranos especially were splendid, and the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas, with conductor Cynthia Nott, provided just the right angelic glow in Part Two. Organist James Diaz could have been encouraged to play out a bit more—his part is not always just background, although it seemed so on Friday—the organ was often nearly inaudible. Tenor Paul Groves as Gerontius has excellent English diction and an unaffected voice. He adopted a distinct and effective change in vocal timbre in the second part: as the Soul of Gerontius, his voice was brighter than it had been in the first part, when he depicted Gerontius as a dying old man.
Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, in the substantial role of the Angel, has a lovely, round-toned voice, but in her lower register, she was occasionally overshadowed by the orchestra, especially when orchestration was thicker. Bass John Relyea, in the smaller roles of the Priest and the Angel of the Agony, supplied a rich, resonant, projecting voice, but sometimes would profit from clearer diction.
One substantial quibble: no supertitles were used, obliging audience members to look away from the stage to their program books to see the text. Yes, the text is in English, but opera companies in the United States normally project English text, and so should the DSO.