Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” premiered in Birmingham, England, in 1846, and from the beginning, it was exceeded in popularity among the Victorians only by Handel’s “Messiah.” The libretto was full of Scriptural wrath — Mendelssohn described the protagonist as “strong, zealous and, yes, even bad-tempered,” calling him the kind of prophet “we could really do with today.” But the composer’s conservatism — both religious and musical — found a ready audience, and the oratorio, when it’s not fulminating, is mellifluous. The Handel and Haydn Society gave “Elijah” its American premiere in 1848, and if that performance matched the one I heard Friday under guest conductor (and former H&H music director) Grant Llewellyn, it would have been very good.
What story there is comes from the Bible’s two Books of Kings. In the first of the oratorio’s two 65-minute parts, Elijah proves himself a man of God when he raises a widow’s son from the dead; he has the prophets of Baal slaughtered and persuades God to send rain to the parched land. In the second, he flees the wrath of Queen Jezebel and despairs in the desert until the Lord appears to encourage him.
Former H&H artistic director Christopher Hogwood was scheduled to lead these performances; following his death in September, Llewellyn stepped in. Llewellyn’s approach tends to be stately, but Friday he elicited drama as well as majesty. His Elijah, bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams, has grit and a bit of a growl to his voice, just what you want from a biblical prophet. He was ferocious in his aria likening God to a hammer, then melting in “It is enough,” when he asks the Lord to take away his life. Soprano Sarah Coburn was silvery bright in voice as well as costume. Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn had weight and warmth as an angel and made a nasty Jezebel; tenor Lawrence Wiliford was a reassuring Obadiah.
The choir was soft-edged in spots, but there was bite in the outbursts from the priests of Baal and the courtiers of Jezebel, and the “Holy, holy, holy” proclamation from the seraphim was satisfyingly massive. The orchestra started cautiously before gathering pace in the overture; thereafter it maintained momentum throughout. There were glistening solos from Guy Fishman’s cello in “It is enough,” Christopher Krueger’s flute in Stotijn’s “O rest in the Lord,” and Stephen Hammer’s oboe in Foster-Williams’s “For the mountains shall depart.”
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.