With the oratorio Messiah, Handel gave life to a series of verses from the Bible compiled by Charles Jennens which tell the Christian story of salvation through Jesus Christ. It is exciting music for believers and non-believers alike; challenging for those who must put meaning into these words of faith, nowhere more so than in the soprano aria at the head of the third section, “I know that my Redeemer liveth”.

Matthew Halls © Eric Richmond
Matthew Halls
© Eric Richmond

Handel’s first performances in mid-18th century Dublin and London occurred at Easter time. Jennens had designed it for immediately before Easter. Nowadays, Messiah is more often performed as a prelude to Christmas: “unto us a son is born”.

Australia has a long established tradition of fly-in-fly-out workers who travel hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometres to work in remote mines, gas fields and oil rigs, do their work, then fly home. This Adelaide performance of Messiah displays a musical version of this, with conductor and soloists flying on to Perth, then back across the country to Melbourne, spending a short time to prepare and perform with choir and orchestra in each city in the lead up to Christmas

The Adelaide performances have been great. Remarkable has been the conducting genius of Matthew Halls. If I were a violinist in an orchestra or a chorister in a choir, he is the sort of conductor I would want to have leading me. Hands, arms, eyes, his entire body communicates to inspire trust in his charges, to lead them in confidence and draw them to rise to new levels of performance. It was thrilling to watch him at his craft – truly transformational conducting.

They rose to the occasion, both chorus and orchestra were remarkable. I was sitting by the back wall of the gallery in the acoustically beautiful Adelaide Town Hall. I think that, like legend has it of the back row of the Family Circle in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, it is the place to sit to capture the best acoustic in the hall. It certainly sounded like it last night; so fluid, so liquid, so golden under the mellow stage lighting they blended together visually and aurally as one.

Under the direction of Carl Crossin, the Adelaide Chamber Singers, who have performed on four continents and won many awards, were again at the top of their game, earning applause for the “Hallelujah” Chorus and, to my mind, reaching their peak as they confidently affirmed that “Worthy is the Lamb”.

The orchestra was reduced to Baroque size (no choir of 2,000 and orchestra of 500 instruments as was claimed for an 1857 Crystal Palace performance in London – no wonder it eventually burned down!) and with the inspiration of Matthew Halls conducting were so clear, sharp and uplifting.

There was much to love about this performance. Initially tenor Richard Butler’s soft, gentle launching into “Comfort ye my People” caught my imagination. It was as if he was confiding to me that there was story about to be told to which I should listen. He sang inspiringly, until towards the end of the evening seemed to doubt whether his voice was carrying, and began to force it, perhaps a side effect of not sufficiently knowing the acoustic of the hall, although he had performed here earlier in the year.

Soprano Siobhan Stagg was a joy to listen to all night, her “There were Shepherds” and “For now is Christ Risen” her highlights. Stagg has an engaging sweetness, and beautiful voice with very clear diction.

Christopher Purves’ rich resonating bass brought joy to my ears, and a gasp to the audience as his descent at the end of the “We shall be Changed” seemed to drop off the bottom of the page. Christopher Field excelled brilliantly in his technique, giving us a clear precise countertenor rendition of his role (it would seem countertenors are replacing contraltos for this role in Messiah). However, having exerted so much energy and concentration to get it right, there seemed to be little scope left for any feeling or emotion in his delivery, which was a pity.

Handel concluded his score with the letters “SDG” – Soli Deo Gloria – the glory belongs to God alone – to expression of his desire to make an offering of his work to God. The audience was thrilled by this performance. I’m sure Handel would have been thrilled had he heard this performance. To God we can all give glory and thanks for such an inspiring night of music.