Review: Händel’s Messiah – Excellent Soloists Make Up for Listless Orchestra

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Handel MessiahForty minutes into the concert, my tongue dry and sweat pouring down my face, I was thinking more of Händel’s Water Music than his oratorio, The Messiah. But, with no water (or champagne) in sight the audience at this special event of the Franschoek Cap Classique and Champagne Festival bid defiance to the natural elements.

The Canticum Novum Choir accompanied by the Stellenbosch University Symphony Orchestra promised to entice with highlights from the monumental work which Händel composed in a record time of just over three weeks and which was famously described by Beethoven as having ‘sublimity of language’. The conductor was Louis van der Watt and a stellar line-up of soloists included Louise Howlett (soprano), Jen Kummer (alt), Sisphesihle Mdena (tenor) and Thesele Kemane (bass).

Minutes before the concert began the white garden chairs set in front of the stage remained empty.  This was less to do with the blistering price of R 220 per person as to do with the scorching 37 degrees Celsius in Franschhoek that afternoon.  About 160 audience members panted in the shelter of the trees and bushes surrounding the beautiful grounds of Lac de la Lune (Lake of the Moon) emerging to take their seats only when summoned by the majestic trumpet call announcing the start.

And the heat affected not just the audience.   The orchestra was distinctly listless as it worked its way into an opus that is dramatic and grand by its very nature. As the first drops of sweat trickled down my neck I realised that a long afternoon stretched ahead.

Not every recital of baroque music need be historically informed, nor does it need to be in strict accordance with early music performance practices.  But this orchestra and choir’s performance lacked those very attributes that make baroque music so dramatic, expressive and exciting. The precision in articulation, the energy and the eloquence that a baroque performance demands and that make works like Händel’s Messiah so arresting was, unfortunately, absent. One can only suspect that the heat simply depleted those on the stage of all the vigour and intensity required to present an exhilarating interpretation.

Yet what the orchestra and choir lacked the soloists made up for with enthusiasm, precision and passion. Specifically the soprano, Louise Howlett, and the tenor Sisphesihle Mdena gave enlivening performances, allowing for some memorable moments to celebrate this first event at Lac de la Lune.

The audience was duly appreciative and it was especially pleasing to see, as we walked back to our cars, that old and young came out to support this event which will hopefully find a regular place on the Franschhoek Cap Classique and Champagne Festival calendar. (Chilled) champagne anyone?

Andra le Roux-Kemp

Händel’s Messiah performed at Lac de la Lune, Franschoek  on Sunday 4 December 2011.

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