Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sullivan's Glorious Golden Legend: A Rare Performance

Last night I attended a performance of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s rarely performed dramatic cantata “The Golden Legend”, based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem of the same name. The work was performed as part of Longfellow 204th Birthday Choral Festival (an annual event based here in Portland, Maine along with an annual international composition competition in a number of divisions, choral works, cantatas, songs settings, etc.).

Sadly, the unannounced blizzard that arrived Friday, meant two things: the massive work for 5 soloists, orchestra, organ and chorus did not get a dress rehearsal; and (2) people stayed home resulting in a disproportionate ratio of performers (roughly 80) to audience (about 50).

While the performance was not perfect, it was a spirited and winning one that had its small audience cheering, showing there is no good reason this work is not better known, and the powerfully satisfying musical and emotional effect it can have on the listener.

The Longfellow Chorus was fortunate in havingn a handful of young, attractive soloists who, frankly, could not have been better suited to this music and were, in fact superior to those on the impressive Hyperion/Musical Heritage Society recording. So clear was the diction of all five (as well as that of the chorus) it eliminated any necessity of reading the nicely sized (for once) libretto provided in the program.

As Lucifer, Bradford Gleim - even in concert dress - made for a convincing Victorian-era looking devil, and his rich, sonorous voice got the prologue off to a roaring good start, as he attempts to summon his demons. Throughout, Gleim’s devil exhibited perfect amounts of gleeful mischief to make him just evil enough, but also a lot of fun.

Tenor, Brian Arreola (who teaches at UNC Charlotte and a founding member of the ensemble Cantus) was for me the discovery of the night. A clear, nicely sized voice that had the needed Victorian sweetness demanded by this music, but also a cutting heldentenor-ish quality that easily rode over the orchestra , which came nicely into play at the work’s most thrilling moment, (the end of part two) with Henry’s cries of “Angelo! Murderer!” - answered in full cry by the chorus, giving the work a genuine “wow!” factor.

As Ursula, mezzo soprano, Tania Mandzy revealed a absolutely gorgeous-toned voice that at moments reminded me of Dame Janet Baker with its velvety finish and brilliant diction. Unfortunately, at her prayer in the beginning of Part 3, there was a snafu between the orchestra and singer which brought the performance to an unexpected halt. Rather than plugging away and hoping for the best, our intrepid conductor issued a short apology and after a minute to regroup, they began again making the awkward incident worth it as Ms. Mandzy poured her heart out into the prayer, offering phrase after phrase of sheer beauty.

Deborah Selig (who bore an uncanny resemblance to the actress, Jennifer Beals) soared through Elsie’s music with sweetness, but with plenty of sheen to the voice, which opened up beautifully the higher she went. She had the proper amount of earnestness and beauty of tone for “My Redeemer and my Lord” - but truly made her mark with the little coda Sullivan gives Elsie immediately after “My life is little - only a cup of water,” which can only be described as ravishing. Selig’s breathtaking “Christe Elieson” with the chorus at the conclusion of “The night is calm and cloudless” interrupted the performance from the otherwise well mannered audience with several cries of “Brava!”

From the tiny island of Chebeague, (now residing in New York), bass baritone Tyler Putnam offered luxury casting in the small but important role of The Forester. Putnam’s sizeable - almost rattling - voice only made one sorry Sir Arthur hadn’t given him more to sing. Much more.

The Longfellow Chorus sang thrillingly throughout the evening, particularly the women’s voices which were clear and evocative of the best British choruses. The men were slightly underpowered in their chanting of the Hymn of St. Hildebert, and could have used a more “monk’s chant” type of expression in this music, but this is a minor quibble. Most other moments however, such as in first unaccompanied chorus “O blessed light” the sound, would best be described as exquisite, and in the rousing finale, truly glorious.

A nice effect was made with a bit of “staging” with singers shifting positions, actually singing to each other, a prop or two, and a dramatic exit as Lucifer led the then-doomed Elsie down the aisle before appearing in the rear balcony as Prince Henry and his attendants prepare to storm the door for Elsie’s rescue.

Conductor, Charles Kaufman, led all with a sure hand and obvious affection for this remarkable work and, aside from some glitches (most noticeably in the strings), his orchestra (particularly the winds who were marvelous throughout) responded in a performance that made as strong case as I can think of for this work re-entering the repertoire of choral and symphonic organizations.

The small but hearty audience, clearly moved by what we experienced, cheered and applauded lustily, calling back the soloists and Maestro Kaufman for an extended and well deserved bow. It’s a shame the house wasn’t packed . Hopefully a repeat performance today at 3:00 will be better attended.

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