May Festival finale a feast of vocal talent

James Conlon
Cincinnati Enquirer

By Janelle Gelfand

The bass-baritone Shenyang, in the title role of the prophet Elijah, forcefully intoned the curse that set in motion a spellbinding journey of Mendelssohn's epic oratorio, "Elijah," to conclude the Cincinnati May Festival season on Saturday in Music Hall. On the podium, James Conlon launched the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra into the Overture with tautness and urgency and the May Festival Chorus entered with the heaven-rending cry, "Help, Lord!"

The drama of those opening moments never wavered during the entire, lengthy evening. The Old Testament masterpiece received an unforgettable and thrilling performance by the May Festival Chorus, which has been so magnificently prepared this season by Robert Porco, the Cincinnati Boychoir, Christopher Eanes, director, and a stunning cast of soloists.

It's doubtful that anyone in the nearly full house will ever forget the Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe's desolate tone in "Woe unto them who forsake Him," or her mesmerizing power as Jezebel, the biblical queen who drives Elijah into the wilderness. As the angel, her comforting message to Elijah "O rest in the Lord," was breathtaking, as she lingered on the word "wait."

Then there was Elijah's despondent aria, "It is enough," so beautifully felt by the 26-year-old Shenyang. Ilya Finkelshteyn's cello captured the emotion of this moment, portraying the human side of Elijah with throbbing tone and sweeping phrasing.

Shenyang is clearly a star to watch, blessed with stunning vocal presence and a gift for communication. His Elijah was both magnanimous and tortured, and his voice remained fresh all evening.

And one could not have wished for a finer Obadiah than the golden-toned tenor Lawrence Brownlee, whose "If with all your hearts" was both lyrical and deeply moving. Without breaking the spell after Elijah's haunting "It is enough," he entered with his recitative to introduce the angelic voices of the Boychoir in the balcony in "Lift thine eyes to the mountains."

What a joy it was also to hear the luscious soprano of Julianna Di Giacomo in her high-floating aria, "Hear ye, Israel." Her voice had dramatic heft and lyrical beauty, and she and Blythe blended well in their ensembles.

William McGraw added his warm bass to the final quartet. And treble Thomas Lewis, a fifth-grader at Mason Intermediate School, fearlessly sang that rain was coming with pure tone from the balcony.

This was sacred drama at its most vivid. Conlon felt every note and word, imaginatively bringing out details of orchestral tone painting and communicating both the joyous as well as the reverent. It all unfolded seamlessly, and there was not a moment that sagged, as the conductor led with momentum through scenes of drought and fire, the priests of Baal, Elijah's flight into the desert and his final ascension into heaven.

The May Festival Chorus was superb in Mendelssohn's sumptuous choruses, such as the pastoral "Blessed are the men who fear Him," the brilliant "Be not afraid" with the Cincinnati Symphony's trumpets, and "Thanks be to God," a picture of exuberance and clarity. And the orchestra was energized all evening, enhancing the performance with buoyant strings, refined brass and wonderful playing by the winds.

The enthusiastic crowd stood and cheered at its conclusion, the tiny flower girls delivered their bouquets to the soloists, and Conlon launched the annual "Hallelujah Chorus" sing-along. So ended the 138th year of the Cincinnati May Festival, a musical experience that Cincinnati can claim as unparalleled anywhere else in the world.