Messiah’s Montreal makeover

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      Camille Saint-Saí«ns was buried on Christmas Eve, 1921: an effective if extreme way of sidestepping the tedious imperatives of the season. He wrote, when he was still in a condition to handle a pen, a newspaper article for a Birmingham paper in which he remarked that “the English taste for oratorio is mixed up with religious feeling of a very special nature. At different times England has been both Catholic and Protestant. Yet at heart it is not Protestant like the Germanic people or Catholic like the Latin race.

      “England is a biblical country.”¦Hence the great success of works like Israel in Egypt, Elijah, and Solomon.”¦The most triumphant of them is the Messiah, which gets performed everywhere and always.”

      That was in 1878, a temporal point nearly equidistant between the present time and 1742, when George Frederick Handel’s Messiah was first performed. The religious ethos Saint-Saí«ns observed and described was imported to this country by successive waves of colonizers, and it remained dominant until very recently, well within the living memory of anyone born in English Canada before 1970 or so. Although the complexion of faith is now amply pocked by secularlism, Messiah, one of its steadfast relics, remains untarnished, buoyant.

      This year’s presentation of Handel’s greatest hit by the Vancouver Cantata Singers on Friday and Saturday (December 22 and 23) should have a particularly regenerative quality about it, given its cast of young and very capable principals. While none of the four soloists is exactly new to the game, three are in the early days of promising careers, as is the conductor, Jean-Marie Zeitouni. At 32, he’s one of a number of rising young music directors from Quebec—Alain Trudel, Jacques Lacombe, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, and Bernard Labadie are among the others.

      “Simply because we had the possibility,” explains Zeitouni, when asked about this localized flowering of podium talent. “We were given the opportunity, the encouragement, and there’s been an increasing realization that you needn’t go elsewhere or come from elsewhere to do this work.”

      This he says while on the road, somewhere between Montreal and Quebec City. Of necessity a multi ­tasker, he talks while he drives, speaking on a cellphone that’s rigged up to the sound system of his Camry hybrid.

      Profoundly English in its character and aesthetic—never mind that its composer was a transplanted German and its first performance was in Dublin—Messiah was not a mainstay of Zeitouni’s Québécois childhood. He grew up in Montreal and his first substantial acquaintance with the oratorio came as a young instrumentalist, when he’d migrate over to the Anglo enclaves on the West side for performances. Over the succeeding years, of course, he’s come into contact with Messiah in its various parts, but this will be his first stem-to-stern marshalling of the piece. He’s not overly concerned with his neophyte status. There’s always a first time—this will also be his Vancouver debut—and much of his work to date has come from opera companies. Messiah, he says, is operatic, a work that in its dramatic arc and musical linkages is, essentially, a piece of theatre.

      “It’s a story,” he says, “and while it’s religious in nature, it’s also very human, and full of carnal elements. Hope. Suffering. Injustice.”

      Which, he adds, are qualities the voice is ideally suited to convey. It’s the most elemental of instruments; also the least predictable. The tiniest alteration in the cords or resonators that make possible the voices Messiah requires can have a huge impact on the emerging noise. And there are always external considerations, such as who’s controlling the baton.

      Shannon Mercer, like Zeitouni making her first Vancouver appearance, will be the soprano soloist. Unlike Zeitouni, she’s been around Messiah her whole musical life and still remembers the dress she wore, as a little girl, to her first hearing of the piece at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. It’s a work she’s come to know inside and out, both as a soloist and as a chorus member. This will be her third Messiah of the season—the other two were in Montreal and Calgary—and she knows that this assignment will be completely different from the others, if only because of so rudimentary a consideration as the tempo demanded by the maestro. And when you’ve got the weight of such a well-loved and run- and trill-filled aria as “Rejoice Ye Greatly” resting on your shoulders, and when you’re tasked with the responsibility of making the burden sound light, tempo—stately or spritely—is bound to be a consideration.

      Mercer has just turned 30. Years shy of her prime, she manages her career with the “gather ye rosebuds” certainty that the lyric soprano voice has a limited shelf life. There’s a steely determination in her decision to commit her energies to music-making rather than, oh you know, dating and stuff.

      Messiah, she says, for all its familiarity, still offers up surprise after surprise. Were that not as true for audiences as for performers, it wouldn’t have lasted this long. It offers even the most curmudgeonly among us something to look forward to at Christmas. For that, if for no other reason, we can sing in chorus, Hallelujah.