Monday, May 19, 2003

Morris' 'Elijah' sure to make Music Hall history

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It was during the aria "It is enough" in Mendelssohn's Elijah Saturday night, that bass-baritone James Morris, singing the title role, summed up the spectrum of emotions felt by the prophet. Up to that point, Morris had captured the Old Testament character vividly and profoundly, reflecting at alternate times devotion, anger, anguish and doubt.

A rainbow flag adorns the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption on Sunday during a dress rehearsal of the May Festival Chorus' production of Noah's Flood.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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But that single moment of despair, colored by the melancholy sound of a solo cello (Daniel Culnan), brought to the fore the very humanness of Elijah's character. Morris' Herculean account, coming the night after he sang Verdi's Requiem, will be remembered as one of the great performances heard on Music Hall's stage.

On day two of the Cincinnati May Festival, chorus director Robert Porco was on the podium for Mendelssohn's oratorio, Elijah, sung in English. The May Festival Chorus, which brought thrilling color to the drama, was joined by a quartet of exceptional soloists: Morris, with soprano Cynthia Haymon, mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson and tenor John Aler.

The only disappointment was the playing by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which failed to consistently follow Porco's clear direction. Although Porco's view was broad and spiritual, the musicians took off at their own tempo in the Overture. But the chorus came in on cue with its great outcry, "Help Lord!"

Morris inhabited his role with authority, focus and an arresting vocal timbre. His "Lord God of Abraham" was reverent and beautifully phrased; the hushed chorus that followed was deeply moving. Morris' presence was commanding, whether he was demanding that the followers of Baal be killed, or begging the Almighty for rain. One of his moving moments was the arioso "For the mountains," with a beautifully executed oboe obbligato (Lon Bussell).

Mezzo-soprano Simpson was eloquent and warm in her solos; her Jezebel was forceful if not terribly malicious. Fresh-voiced soprano Haymon brought conviction to her aria, "Hear ye, Israel," and pure intonation to her lines as the Angel. As Obadiah, Aler was equally expressive.

Porco, the country's pre-eminent choral conductor, led his chorus animatedly and with attention to detail, and paced the music well. The May Festival Chorus was precise and full-bodied, with a refined but powerful sound. The double quartets were memorable; diverse scenes, such as the jubilant rain chorus, were vividly portrayed.

From the balcony, Katie Johnson performed the child soprano solo fearlessly. On a higher perch in the gallery, the Cincinnati Boychoir lifted pure voices in the charming Trio, "Lift thine eyes."

The crowd of 2,670 barely moved a muscle through the entire performance, and sprang to its feet with cheers at the conclusion.


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