George Friedrich Handel’s Messiah (1742) is the Muhammad Ali of oratorios: It dominates the category to the point of overshadowing all others. Handel (1685-1759) himself wrote many other outstanding examples, driven in part by London’s ban on mounting operas during Lent. Oratorios, with sacred themes but without costuming or staging, provided a religiously acceptable — and profitable — way to fill theaters that otherwise remained dark for six weeks each spring.
Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809) heard the Baroque master’s oratorios when he visited England in the early 1790s. Handel’s works inspired Haydn to spend a year and a half composing his first oratorio, The Creation (1798). It recounts God’s six busy days of world making, according to the Book of Genesis. Last Saturday at Shelburne Farms, conductor William Metcalfe led the Oriana Singers, the Vermont Mozart Festival Orchestra and an outstanding set of soloists in a glorious performance of The Creation.
Given this summer’s Noah-worthy rains, the evening’s conditions were so perfect that I suspected divine intervention. The sun — remember the sun? — angled over the lake and behind the Adirondacks directly opposite the inn’s South Porch, which served as the stage. Seventy-plus performers gathered on its circular deck, divided almost equally between musicians and choristers. Picnicking concertgoers spread out on grass that glowed almost neon green from months of abundant moisture.
Outdoor concert audiences can range from restless to rude, and Mozart Fest fans often focus on enjoying fancy eats and fine wines as much as the music. In 11 years of attending VMF concerts, I have never experienced a large al fresco crowd so intensely engaged as this one by what was happening on stage. The Creation held concertgoers rapt. Metcalfe and company defied the inherent acoustical and logistical challenges — using microphones and an outdoor sound system while performing a long piece for large forces, from a small spot — and drew listeners into Haydn’s magical work.
The Creation unfolds in three acts. In Acts I and II, three archangels describe how God makes everything from Heaven and Earth to birds and insects. In Act III, Adam and Eve finally arrive to add their voices. Haydn’s oratorio has some beautiful orchestral interludes and rousing choruses. But the soloists get most of the big numbers — in recitatives, which convey lots of action, and arias, the show-stopping songs.
The strength of Saturday’s show rested with the quintet singing the lead roles. All five sang with refinement and ease, which suited Haydn’s graceful music and joyous texts.
Especially delightful were the performances of David Neiweem and Jane Snyder, whose voices blended sweetly as Adam and Eve. Their tone differed from that of the angels — dare I say, it sounded a little earthier? The timbre of Neiweem’s baritone was smooth and soothing, yet he projected every word precisely. Snyder’s dulcet soprano was simply superb. Singing into a mic is not the norm in classical performance, not to mention doing so outside while being dive-bombed by bugs. Despite the difficult conditions, even Snyder’s highest notes remained velvety and rich.
As the Archangel Uriel, tenor John Tiranno also excelled. He sang assertively, yet with warmth and subtlety. For example, two short recitatives by Uriel lead into Act I’s finale. Tiranno’s quiet intensity alternated wonderfully with the muted orchestral passages, and the effect was captivating.
The Archangel Gabriel gets the oratorio’s most fun-filled aria, “On mighty quills uplifted soars the eagle.” Soprano Shyla Nelson reveled in Haydn’s playful use of word painting (using music to illustrate text literally), especially for the “cooing” of the doves. She brought out the delicacy of Haydn’s writing, singing this selection with particular effervescence. As Archangel Raphael, bass Gary Moreau also demonstrated the composer’s flair for sketching words with notes. For “Rolling in foaming billows,” he brought to life ascending clouds and flowing rivers with elegant tone and diction.
Metcalfe’s leadership showed in strong work from both orchestra and chorus. The orchestra supported the singers beautifully, with birdlike flute and clarinet work responding to the “cooing” soprano, for example. Arrayed on three risers behind the musicians, the choristers gamely stood during the long intervals between their numbers, yet made their vocal entrances crisply and energetically. They articulated brisk passages with precision, attacking consonants with remarkable unison, even though many seemed to be committing choral music’s cardinal sin: eyes on their scores rather than the conductor.
There is something radiant about The Creation, well captured by Saturday’s performance. Would the oratorio have sounded better in the friendly acoustics of the University of Vermont Recital Hall? Yes, but the slight sacrifice of sound quality was far outweighed by the pleasure of being surrounded by nature’s splendid creation.
Haydn’s The Creation, Vermont Mozart Festival, Shelburne Farms, Saturday, August 1, 7 p.m. For info on upcoming performances, click here.