As far as Messiah-season in Toronto goes, the TSO has an easy monopoly on the version that’s big and grand. Big and grand are important pieces of the Messiah puzzle, the landscape of holiday oratorio that includes the historically informed performances by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, the hip Electric Messiah from Soundstreams that’s by now a new holiday tradition, and even the irreverent, choreographed AtG’s Messiah, put up twice since 2013 by indie opera darlings Against the Grain Theatre.
Amid all the personality-laden Messiahs, curated both for the traditionalists and innovators, is the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s established annual presentation of the 1741 masterpiece by George Frideric Handel. Compared with Tafelmusik, the TSO’s Messiah is modern enough; the instruments are of the newfangled sort, where the violins have steel strings and the horns have valves. And next to Electric or AtG’s Messiahs, the TSO is positively classic, with no glaring adaptations or re-imaginings to jolt you out of a comfortable Hallelujah experience.
Yet this year, the Toronto Symphony still seemed inspired to do something new with its trusty Messiah. Armed with a quartet of singers representing Canada’s top talent, and with National Arts Centre music director Alexander Shelley at the podium, the TSO offered up a rarity in Mozart’s 1789 updating of Handel’s work.
As a piece of history, Mozart’s version of Messiah is fascinating. Mozart got his hands right into Handel’s score, boosting the orchestration with a broader sound palate, funky new harmonies and a new distribution of arias among the singers and chorus. Mozart’s influence over Handel’s score is far from subtle and likely a bit polarizing for listeners. This jointly composed Messiah is almost like 18th-century fan fiction, one rock-star composer adding his two cents to the work of another.
The spectacle of the piece is wholly enhanced by the presence of the four soloists: soprano Jane Archibald, mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo, tenor Isaiah Bell and baritone Russell Braun. Audience members even slightly familiar with Messiah and these four cornerstone Canadian singers might have found themselves a bit starry-eyed at these performances. It’s kind of like seeing a remake of your favourite movie, directed by your (other) favourite director, starring a cast of your favourite actors – the nostalgia is pretty darn strong.
Even if we didn’t have the novelty of the Mozart factor, this quartet of singers is near-perfect. Archibald, a seasoned Handel singer with world-famous agility, threw her rich, bell-like sound out into Roy Thomson Hall. Her moments of spotlight felt a bit rarer in this version, giving a little absence to make our ears grow even fonder. Similarly under-used is D’Angelo, the fast-rising Toronto star who dealt deftly with the alto part of Messiah, famously written much lower than most mezzos like. As a result, D’Angelo sang with more chest voice than I’ve heard in one evening in a long time, an impressive feat for someone with the powerful high range that she boasts. D’Angelo’s youth seemed boldly on display during this Messiah, a boyish plop into her seat an odd punctuation to her very grown-up singing. Yet with such extraordinary skill in a still-young singer, it was almost charming to discover an aria that D’Angelo is decidedly still too young for: He was despised.
The men sure seemed to get the long end of the stick, owing to Mozart’s redistribution of arias. Braun got his athletic hits, Why do the nations and The trumpet shall sound, in addition to an extra bit or two usually reserved for the mezzo. Braun’s voice seems eternally beautiful, even when he got so passionate that he worked himself into a boiling state where the singing borders on hollering.
The star of the evening was surely tenor Bell. Moments of stillness, smooth-as-silk coloratura, careful attention to every note, even a fun treading of the line between Baroque-style straight-tone and full-throated operatic vibrato – Bell had the chance to offer it all, and he did so with poise.
So great were the performances by the soloists and by the players of the TSO that I feel I can fairly state my dislike for this Mozart version of Messiah. It has less of the chiaroscuro tension inherent in Baroque music, and instead a wash of clean, symmetrical classical lines; maybe that’s why it felt curiously monochromatic. It shouldn’t necessarily be the case that additional orchestration results in a heavy sound, nor a sound that overpowers the singers, and it certainly shouldn’t mean that the whole work gets saggy and sluggish. But it was just that, heavy and largely devoid of the snappy dance rhythms that give a large-scale shape to the enormity that is Messiah.
Still, if the TSO is going to force upon me something I didn’t ask for – like a Christmas gift from one group of music nerds to another – I’m happy to take my serving of Mozart’s Handel’s Messiah.
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