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Handel’s Messiah, An Easter Oratorio

by Antonia Shoumatoff
Sun Apr 10th, 2016

Most people are accustomed to hearing Handel’s Messiah with its magnificent Hallelujah chorus as an oratorio to be listened to at Christmas.  Few realize that it was written as an Easter oratorio.  The unabridged version was performed at Bard this weekend with Leon Botstein conducting Bard’s student orchestra in training, “Orchestra Now,” and 56 voices from the Bard Festival Chorale and Chamber Singers directed by James Bagwell.

The truncated version which most people hear features the oratorio about the birth of Christ.  The unabridged 3-hour version which was performed at Bard puts more emphasis on the resurrection of Christ: “with the trumpet of God, the dead shall be raised and we shall be changèd,” is sung at length.  Handel performed the oratorio three dozen times, every time it was at Easter not Christmas. Bard’s complete rendition of the oratorio therefore was able to bring out many musical subtleties as well as revelatory moments of the scriptures on which it was based.  

The soloists in this performance are all in the Bard two-year masters vocal program conceived by soprano Dawn Upshaw.  Many of them have already performed in impressive venues such as Carnegie Hall and Banff’s music festival.  

Their training and talent was palpable with several extraordinary voices.   “He was despisèd and rejectèd,” was sung in Handel’s day by a castratto, and more recently by counter tenors.  Mezzo soprano, Kimberly Feltkamp, dressed as man with a three piece suit and a man’s haircut, gave an unusually striking vocal interpretation.  The bass, Andrew Munn, also stood out for his profound rendition of ‘the darkness covering the earth’ and the final soprano, Caroline Dunigan was truly stunning.  There were a few voices that could have been projected with more vigor.

When we saw Messiah at the Vassar chapel, the organ there had an impressive sound and ecclesiastical setting which helped to bring out the aspect the birth of the Messiah more traditionally with tiers of singers in white robes singing “Unto us a Child is born.” 

But this performance with the significantly large choir, the highly trained Bard musicians and soloists and Botstein’s masterful conducting though more stark was a virtuoso performance bringing out the spirit of the original oratorio.