I knew I was in for ‘Handel with a difference’ as soon as I arrived at the ticket desk. Many people seemed to be wearing something pink or yellow or both. The ticket table was laden with a huge pile of coloured streamers (pink and yellow predominating) and I was invited to take one, along with my pink and yellow program. Settled into my seat, I checked out the program and discovered the title of Act III was #FAKENEWS, and that along with the usual 18th Century instruments I was about to hear soprano sax and Wurlitzer Organ. Hmm, I mused, this is going to be interesting! An understatement, as it turned out.
The current artistic director, Michelle Leonard, founded the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus in 1998. The chorus comprises 80 people who love singing with all their heart, and they tackle challenging works, such as Handel’s Solomon, with flair and pizazz. For this performance, they enlisted the help of creative director Dr Narelle Yeo from Sydney Conservatorium of Music to situate the oratorio in the 21st Century. The chorus members were dressed as office workers, albeit with pink sashes, scarves, ties, glasses, jackets, the occasional pink hat, pink coffee mug, yellow buttonhole flower, and so on. During the overture, they sauntered in as if off to work – some carrying coffee and briefcase, some on phones (pink of course!), others chatting to each other, some listening through earphones, late ones running for the train, etc. – and took their places either side of the orchestra. This generated quite an expectant buzz in a bemused audience.
Leonard had selected a fine group of soloists who sang throughout with confidence and sensitivity. Mezzo Anna Fraser was Solomon, and soprano Morgan Balfour alternated between Solomon’s wife, the Queen of Sheba, the first harlot, and other minor roles. Brad Cooper sang the role of Zadok the Priest, and Andrew O’Connor the Levite. Movement Director Narelle Yeo appeared in Act II as the second harlot.
Like others I spoke to, I had to wonder at the end of the evening why this oratorio is so rarely performed. Most of us know the Act III Sinfonia (aka the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba) but little else. The brilliance of Handel shines through in every chorus, of which there are many. When trumpets, trombones, and percussion were at full strength several of the choruses were absolutely thrilling. The famous ‘Nightingale Chorus’ May no rash intruder with the flute imitating the birds, closed out Act I and was superbly sung.
Likewise, many of the arias deserve to be heard more often. Welcome as the dawn of day is an exquisite duet, which Anna Fraser and Morgan Balfour sang with great emotion and tenderness. Every sight these eyes behold and Will the sun forget to streak (with some masterful playing by Christina Leonard on sax) both showcased the beauty of Balfour’s voice. Brad Cooper was a forceful Zadok, with his strong and dynamic tenor voice, and Andrew O’Connor sang with gravitas and conviction as the Levite, especially the opening aria Praise ye the Lord. Anna Fraser was a regal Solomon and although a constant presence throughout the Oratorio, the arias Handel wrote for the role are not as impressive as some written for Zadok and the two Queens.
The central section of the oratorio is the well-known biblical story of two women who claim to be the real mother of a child, and who ask Solomon to intervene and judge their case. There is an extraordinary trio Words are weak in which the real mother sings with great anguish, and again with deep despair in Can I see my infant gor’d which leads Solomon to his conclusion about the rightful claimant, and his duet with her closes Act II. The three soloists – Fraser, Balfour, and Yeo – were able to convey vocally and with limited movement or actions, the tension and emotion as the scene played out.
Act III opened with the Wurlitzer organ playing with great gusto the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. The Queen (Morgan Balfour) processed up the aisle from the back of the concert hall surrounded by her admiring well-wishers carrying colourful umbrellas (you guessed the colours!) and clapping and cheering. The audience realised this was our moment for action, and we leapt to our feet tossing streamers at the smiling Queen and her attendants, laughing and cheering ourselves. Handel, I suspect, would have loved it!!
Special mention must be made of the incorporation of creative movement into the oratorio. Normally oratorios are performed with soloists standing in front of the orchestra when singing, and the chorus arranged behind the musicians. Yeo and Leonard positioned the chorus on either side of the orchestra and elevated the four soloists onto the stage. The arrival of the Queen of Sheba was brilliantly done and provided the audience with a welcome opportunity to stand up and move a little in what turned out to be a very long performance (over two and a half hours with no intermission – fewer of Handel’s repeated sections would have helped). Somewhat reminiscent of the ‘acted’ Bach Passions directed by Peter Sellars, the chorus members incorporated hand actions, waved iPhones in flashlight mode, tossed flowers at the feet of King Solomon, and waved flags at appropriate points in the choruses. Unfortunately much of this was hard to see beyond the first half dozen rows.
Marrickville Town Hall was full, which is a testimony to the pulling power of the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus as well as to Handel’s increasing popularity among Sydney concert-goers. Despite the length of the performance, few left before the end. For those who stayed there were drinks and a wonderful spread (food in the colours of the day, of course!). My only regret was that this was a one-off performance – I would have gone again in a heartbeat to enjoy the high standard of orchestral playing (special kudos to the continuo players who had few opportunities to rest) and the singing of both the four soloists and the chorus of this sadly neglected work by the master of the oratorio.
Handel’s Solomon: Leichhardt Espresso Chorus | 2nd July | Marrickville Town Hall