Arts & Events

MUSIC REVIEWS: Mendelssohn’s ELIJAH in Hertz Hall and
Verdi’s LA TRAVIATA at San Francisco Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday June 19, 2014 - 10:18:00 AM

On Friday, June 13, 2014, the Berkeley Community Chorus & Orchestra gave the first of three performances of Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah at Hertz Hall on the UC Berk-eley campus. Elijah was composed by Mendelssohn on a commission from the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival in England, where it was first performed in 1846. It is the second oratorio composed by Mendelssohn, the first being St. Paul, which also received an English première, though ten years earlier. These two oratorios, set to religious texts, and following in the tradition of Bach and Handel, firmly established Mendelssohn in the English musical scene. In the course of Mendelssohn’s brief life, he made nine different trips to England, even becoming friends with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who championed his music. 

Elijah is a monumental work: For its première in Birmingham, Mendelssohn, who conducted, reportedly massed over 400 performers. Here, Berkeley Community Chorus & Orchestra Music Director Ming Luke conducted a chorus of 170 singers, four principal singers, and a large orchestra. This enormous battalion of musicians literally filled the entire stage of Hertz Hall; and the resulting sound was often thunderous. 

Mendelssohn grew up in a wealthy, cultured Jewish family, first in Hamburg, then in Berlin. Young Felix Mendelssohn’s musical talents were evident early on; and at age 10 he joined the Singakaemie in Berlin. In his Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and Their Music, Milton Cross recounts the following incident. “One day Felix came home from the Singakademie in tears. He had been singing with the chorus a passage from Bach’s Passion 

According to St. Matthew when a fellow chorister remarked derisively, ‘The Jew-boy raises his voice to Christ’!” The father of Felix reacted quickly: The very next day he took Felix and his sister Fanny to the Protestant church for conversion; and he and his wife quickly did the same, attaching the name Bartholdy to distinguish their family from the Mendelssohns who remained in the Jewish faith. 

In spite – or because – of his childhood conversion to Christianity, Felix Mendelssohn was often subjected to anti-semitic prejudice. Critics wondered whether his conversion was sincere or merely a pretext for advancement. Further, Mendelssohn’s music was often criticized for lacking in profundity. Though superbly gifted, Mendelssohn wrote music that was technically sound, wonderfully lyrical, yet somehow lacking the power to move the audience deeply. However, with Elijah Mendelssohn at least manages to impress audiences with the monumental sonority of the musical forces he gathered and the fluency of his polyphony. If Elijah ultimately fails to scale the musical heights, it is no doubt due to this oratorio’s text, adapted from the Old Testament’s Kings I & 2, which belabors us with Judeo-Christian huckstering of alleged miracles performed by Elijah. Some critics even derided it as “religious kitsch.” George Bernard Shaw lambasted Mendelssohn for “his kid-glove gentility, his conventional sentimentality, and his despicable oratorio-mongering.”  

In Berkeley, conductor Ming Luke had four excellent soloists singing the lead parts. Baritone James R. Demler beautifully sang the role of Elijah, vocally projecting the varying moods as this Hebrew prophet swung from bolstering the resolve of his people, scorning and taunting those who had departed from their faith in worshiping Baal, vengeful and blood-curdling in his resolve to kill all the prophets of Baal, then turning to despair in forced exile, and, finally, ascending to heaven in a flaming chariot. Mezzo-soprano Megan Berti was excellent as she sang, alternately, the role of an angel and Israel’s Queen Jezebel. Tenor Brian Thorsett sang sweetly in Obadiah’s aria, “If with all your hearts,” as well in the tenor aria, “Then shall the righteous shine forth.” Last but not least, soprano Carrie Hennessey sang with purity of tone and luscious lyricism throughout, but especially in the soprano aria, “Hear ye, Israel!,” which opens Part II of Elijah.  

The huge chorus effectively handled the shifting moods of the people of Israel, as they initially pleaded with God to end a drought, then expressed their anger and dismay when God seemed unwilling or unable to hear their plea; then became bloodthirsty in a frenzied response to Elijah’s orders to kill all the prophets of Baal; then rejoiced when rains came; later were easily swayed by Jezebel’s exhortation to kill Elijah as a false prophet; then became awestruck when God sent earthquakes, thunder-storms, and fire to show his displeasure at Elijah’s forced exile and, finally, rejoiced at Elijah’s apotheosis in the oratorio’s culminating fugue, And then shall your light break forth.” 



Giuseppe Verdi’s long and illustrious career as a composer of operas is often said to be divided into two main periods – an early stint, the so-called “galley years,” of churning out one effectively dramatic but musically conventional opera after another, and a second, immeasurably greater period wherein Verdi deepened and transformed the Italian conventions in which he had formerly worked. The turning-point in his career, it is often said, comes between Il Trovatore, which premièred in Rome on January 19, 1853, and La Traviata, which had its première in Venice on March 6, 1853. That Verdi could compose in such a short span of time two operas of such strikingly different styles and structures, each of them brilliantly realized, is utterly remarkable; and it is testimony to Verdi’s unquench-able search for new and better means of musical and dramatic expression. Whereas Il Trovatore proceeds by the usual formulaic structure of arias – but what gorgeous arias! --separated by sung recitatives, in La Traviata it is often difficult to say where the recitative ends and the aria begins. There are other innovations, which we will note later, in Verdi’s score for La Traviata.  

Based on the play, La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas the Younger, Verdi’s La Traviata tells the story of Violetta Valéry, a Parisian courtesan who unexpectedly finds true love in the person of young Alfredo Germont, gives up her frivolous pursuits of pleasure for Alfredo’s love, then sacrifices herself and her love for Alfredo at the instigation of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, only to be reconciled with both Germonts on her tragic deathbed at the close of the opera. In San Francisco, Violetta was sung by soprano Nicole Cabell, who in 2012 made an auspicious debut here in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. 

Ms. Cabell’s voice is perhaps not ideal for the role of Violetta, for it is a darker soprano than most who have sung this role. Nonetheless, she has admirable technique; and in the second performance of La Traviata, which I attended, she sang most convincingly. Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, who also debuted here in the 2012 I Capuleti e i Montecchi, gave an uneven performance as Alfredo, showing nerves and pitch problems in his Act I « Brindisi, » but settling down as the opera progressed, ultimately offering an acceptable but unexceptional interpretation of this great tenor role. As Giorgio Germont, Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov was somewhat mannered, both vocally and dramatically; and this tended to detract from the complexity of his character, who does evil while trying to do good. 

For the Spring season, 2014, San Francisco Opera revived, yet again, the somewhat stodgy production of La Traviata by John Copley, staged by director Laurie Feldman. While this production situates the opera, as Verdi wanted, in the 1840s in Paris, this setting, so scandalously contemporary at its première in 1853, seems now merely dated and, in the party scenes in Flora’s Parisian townhouse, unduly garish. In any case, though there is nothing exciting or insightful about this staging, it at least has the merit of not distracting from the music and its remarkable expression of interior emotional states. 

San Francisco Opera’s Music Director Nicola Luisotti conducted; and at the second performance of La Traviata, Maestro Luisotti wrought a sensitive interpretation of this opera’s excellent score. Particularly nuanced was Luisotti’s attention to changes of tempo and dynamics. Passages intended to be played slowly and quietly – as, for example, the Prelude’s famed opening notes of divided violins – were played slowly and quietly. Conversely, both the tempo and the volume increased markedly in passages where a quicker tempo and greater volume were appropriate.  

One of Verdi’s innovations occurs In the Act I double-aria for Violetta, “Ah, fors’è lui”/”Sempre libera.” In the cantabile aria, “Ah, fors’è lui,” when Violetta reflects on Alfredo’s declaration of love and muses that “perhaps he’s the one,” this is not in Italian opera’s conventionally formal, pseudo-aristocratic non-strophic structure, but rather is unex-pectedly strophic. Here, when Violetta is alone, she momentarily drops her social mask and speaks (or sings) in a less formal, more natural style. Her “natural” self is thus contrasted to the more formal, pseudo-aristocratic self she plays in society. In short, the humble, and natural, strophic song invades what usually is formulaic and stilted, thereby providing a clear musical cue to the conflict roiling in the character of Verdi’s heroine, Violetta. Then, only by repudiating this natural self with the outburst, “Folie!,” does Violetta re-don the social mask and sing a cabaletta, “Sempre libera,” in which she reaffirms, a little too feverishly to be convincing, her prior commitment to endless pleasure as a courtesan ‘free’ to go with any man wealthy enough to bankroll her lavish lifestyle. 

Returning to the issue of Nicola Luisotti’s conducting, a wonderful example of his sensitivity to questions of tempo and dynamics came in Act IV’s moving duet, “Parigi o cara.” Here Luisotti takes Alfredo’s opening lines a bit faster and more full-voiced than most conductors, presumably because Luisotti understands that Alfredo, excited to be reunited with Violetta, wants to perk up her spirits by enthusiastically suggesting the two of them leave her decadent Paris milieu so she can regain her health in peace and quiet. Then, when the terminally ill Violetta takes up Alfredo’s words and melody, under Luisotti’s baton the tempo slows down, the rhythm becomes hesitant, and she sings softly --and this is simply because Violetta is weak and dying, and she knows it! Maestro Luisotti brought out these important emotional shifts most sensitively.  

Anyone who complains, as did San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman, that Luisotti’s conducting was “lethargic” and marked by “laggardly rhythms” and “odd interpretive quirks,” simply wasn’t listening attentively to any but a small portion of the music. Unless this opera’s opening night performance reviewed by Kosman was drastically different than the one I heard on Saturday, June 14, I couldn’t disagree more emphatically with Kosman’s biting dismissal of this La Traviata, for, on the whole, I found this anything but a “listless” revival of Verdi’s great opera. It may not be an ideal production of La Traviata, but it is eminently enjoyable; and I urge anyone who loves this opera to go see this production and judge for yourself. (Note: There will be numerous cast changes, starting on June 17, so readers interested in hearing the first cast should check for when they will sing again.)