28 Aug 2007

The Dream of Gerontius Opens Elora Summer Festival

Written in 1900, Elgar’s Gerontius expresses the universal and existentialist struggle of death and rebirth. The allegorical significance of the piece touches on a need for faith, self-discovery, and acceptance of the world around us.

The Elora Festival, noted for the collaborative efforts of many great performers and organizations opened its 2007 festival with Elgar’s magnificent creation. Noel Edison masterfully directed the Elora Festival Singers, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and the Elora Festival Orchestra with brilliance, aesthetic dedication, and a tender yet strict hand. The sensitivity he allotted the soloists is to be commended and his understanding of the deeper meaning of this piece brilliantly shone in his exquisite control of the orchestral fabric. The overture began with warm and burnished hues, painfully weeping celli and well-balanced dark ombra. The Elgarian timbres were specifically expressed by each orchestral section, most specifically in the strings as they exemplified the ethereal and transcendent space Elgar demanded in order to create the vastness of his masterpiece. Edison paid intelligent heed to the dynamic inflection and allowed the orchestra to create layered effects leading to Gerontius’ beautiful entry cry of “Jesu, Maria—I am near to death.”

Noel Edison, Artistic Director of the Elora Festival

Gerontius, sung with elegance and the purity of lyricism by Irish-Canadian tenor, Michael Colvin, is a taxing role that requires an almost Verdian thrust but also the most expansive sense of lyrical control. Colvin’s diction was brilliant and his use of text was especially moving. A free and impressive upper register, the squillo of his tenore bruciato added to the dramatic presence of Gerontius. Although this is a concert work, Colvin was continually in character and indeed most musically presented.

Tenor, Michael Colvin was a sensitive and believable Gerontius.

The combined choruses blended well, with precise diction. Each section represented an individual unit that contributed to the larger whole and there was never a sense of unbalance. Edison led them beautifully toward their inflection of “Of all that makes me man….and crueler still, a fierce and restless fright begins to fill the mansion of my soul,” where Elgar at once transforms the music by imbuing atonal suggestions, with turbulent and exciting orchestration leading into an ethereal moment of relaxation.

The entrance of the priest was significant and wonderfully approached by bass-baritone, Tyler Duncan. Perhaps the most impressive performer of the group, his voice spun almost impeccably and was never pushed but floated on the breath with precision and musical inflection. Impressive indeed for a lower voice type to exude this type of elegance, there was never any heaviness and if so it was created by timbre, not pushing or sometimes, what I call, “barking” baritones.

Tyler Duncan (bass-baritone) was the surprise of the evening.

A most memorable moment at the point where Gerontius’ words mimic those of Christ in his last moments, “Into Thy hands, O Lord, into Thy hands…” was so utterly moving that every hair on one’s head stood completely erect. Duncan’s expression of the Priests, “Go forth in the name…” was well-expressed as one of Elgar’s most majestic melodies.

Canadian mezzo, Kimberly Barber astonishingly represented God’s Angel.

Part II offered a most expressive response to Part I and much of that is owed to the performance of the Angel by mezzo-soprano, Kimberly Barber. Her presence on-stage was riveting and even though she was not in costume one saw her presence as the Angel, purely and physically. Her eyes never wavered in their expressive depth and she captivated. Her’s was the presence of calm and salvation. Her voice blended liquidly with the chorus of Angelicals her inflection and diction was precise. Her sound was never pushed and her rich and luscious mezzo was used in a dramatic way, never singing just to project but rather to express the meaning of the musical lines and the Angel’s important message. Her “Softly and Gently,” was truly one of the most compassionate and hair-raising moments of the entire performance. As she sang, “In my most loving arms I now enfold thee, and o’er the penal waters, as they roll, I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee,” she moved many in the audience to tears. Barber enfolded us with her eloquence and in the end one forgot that this was a singer performing a musical role, but really Elgar’s Angel.

Mary-Lou P. Vetere, 2007