14 and 16 December, Napier Civic Choir
St Paul's Church, Napier
By Anna Soutar

This oratorio, composed to a libretto by Charles Jennens, was performed for an Irish audience in the 1740s and has been a favourite of those seeking traditional Easter and/or Christmas fare ever since. It could be that by presenting a serious work (and long, it lasts around three hours) in the English language it was a welcome change from the Italian and German operas; or that it was performed as a fundraiser for the destitute and unwed mothers of Dublin; or even that the music, especially the songs, termed ‘airs’, are literally, divine. For whatever reason, the Messiah is a traditional favourite of anyone looking to balance the otherwise excessive materialism and kitsch culture wallowed in during the annual festival.

Napier Civic Choir, under the baton of Jose Aparicio, has not shied away from complex difficult works in recent years. The Messiah is the latest, which this year has included the massive Mass in Time of War by Haydn. Handel’s work comprises 53 separate pieces, from those memorable airs, to tricky recitative, innumerable choral segments, and the individual performances of four soloists. As well, the Hawke’s Bay Orchestra contributed fine support, and at times shared with the soloists a thrilling duet as when the baritone Kiernan Rayner and the orchestra brass brought us the air “The trumpet shall sound”.

The oratorio is presented as a concert and not a staged production, leaving just the voice to carry the music and it is the soloists who must take this opportunity and rise to it. In my view Kiernan Rayner did this best, with his baritone judging the mood and space with thrilling control. Soprano Carleen Ebbs carried many of the delightful airs, “Glory to God” sharing with the orchestra’s cellos this lovely song. Recitative often falls to the alto singer and Sarah Court did not disappoint, with sudden changes in register difficult to control,  but amid the sequence of merry tunes ”Thou art gone up on high” stands out. The tenor part this year was taken by the 2018 New Zealand Aria competition winner, Manase Lātū, whose lyrical and energetic vocal style charmed the audience. I particularly appreciated the tenor and baritone duet “Death where is thy sting?” in Part Three.

The chorus, which is anticipated the most, however, comes at the end of the second part, and Conductor Aparicio and his company did not disappoint. The Hallelujah Chorus was sung and played  in full voice by all concerned, and yes, the audience knew to stand for these moments, acknowledging the birth of this composition in the 18th century when King George II chose the moment to stretch his legs.  The Messiah is all about English tradition especially arising out of the sacred calendar and it was not surprising that the audience in Napier for this production was predominantly older people, presumably educated in the Anglo-centric system.

It was also obvious that there were gaps in the pews. Perhaps the Choir’s management could follow another English practice of selling cut price entry to those purchasing on the day of performance, since the price of tickets is prohibitive to those on fixed incomes. After all, the first performances of Handel’s oratorio were to benefit charities caring for the destitute.

Halleluja! Halleluja!  Now we have done the Messiah we can all get ready for a happy and joyful Christmas Day. Blessings to you one and all!

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