In 1791, Franz Joseph Haydn moved to London to begin writing a series of new symphonies that he had agreed to conduct there. While in the capital, the esteemed maestro with the discerning musical instincts attended the annual Handel Festival at Westminster Abbey, a colossal commemoration staged in the King’s presence. For the first time Haydn heard several of the mid-century composer’s most popular oratorios, Israel in Egypt, Esther, Saul and the crowning glory of the glittering event, Messiah.
Haydn was dazzled. In 1795, he returned to Vienna with an original manuscript libretto for an ambitious choral piece by an unidentified author safely stowed in his luggage. The sprawling Old Testament narrative, rediscovered by his English concert manager, Johann Peter Salomon, had allegedly been offered to none other than Handel himself who had declined the commission some four decades earlier. Haydn set to work on a score. He was not a young man anymore. Inspired and re-energized, the enterprising sixty-year old threw himself into his new project. It would take him the better part of two years to transform the epic biblical myth into the vast oratorio known as Die Schöpfung — the Creation.
On a perfect summer’s evening in southwestern Ontario’s peaceful Wellington County, the Elora Festival launched its 35th Anniversary Celebration with a gleaming, polished performance of Haydn’s mighty masterwork pulsing with vitality. Commandingly led by Artistic Director Noel Edison, the combined force of the almost one hundred artists assembled on stage, musicians, choristers and soloists, flooded every corner of Elora’s landmark Gambrel Barn with the glory of Haydn’s monumental work.
To experience the Creation is to succumb to the sensation of music instinctively felt and understood. The Elora Festival’s lavish mass performance made Haydn’s joyful oratorio even more palpable, each movement unfolding in a clear stream of crisp singing and playing.
Partly based on the first book of Genesis, partly adapted from John Milton’s imposing 1667 poem, Paradise Lost, the Creation forms three distinct parts. Part 1 focuses on God’s shaping of earthly forms, sky, land and sea, brought forth from nothingness. Part 2 introduces His gift of life to the newly born world, birds, beasts and fish, as well as man. Part 3 concludes the tale of God’s labours with a singularly sunny depiction of Adam and Eve at the height of innocence.
A trio of archangels, Raphael, Uriel and Gabriel, act as guides, shepherding us through the loose narrative. Accompanied recitative abounds. Arias are striking though far less frequent.
A dynamic overture begins the proceedings. The Festival orchestra, a powerful, omnipresent voice in its own right, effectively evoked the chaos of a universe as yet untouched by the hand of a divine creator. From the first stirrings of Haydn’s startling chromatic chords and tense arpeggios, quickly followed by God’s command for light resonantly proclaimed by Stephen Hegedus as Raphael, the night was endlessly enchanting.
Hegedus, a frequent principal performer on Toronto opera stages, brought his characteristic intensity and passion to Haydn’s markedly colourful piece. Vocally dark, lucid and forceful, the theatrically informed bass-baritone was not without his playful side, greatly in evidence in the Creation’s exhaustive Part 2 catalogue of living creatures miraculously brought into being. Straight opening her fertile womb is recitative raised to near arioso proportions. Hegedus clearly delighted in the celebrated enumeration lavishing special attention on the lowly worm, spiralling “with sinuous trace” to the subterranean depths of his bottommost range.
Soprano Lesley Bouza voiced the heavenly herald Gabriel, skillfully striking a tricky balance between openness and coloratura. Each of her three relatively short solos was a perfect jewel box packed with precious gems. Although Gabriel’s uplifting Part 2 aria, On mighty pens, free and soaring as the eagle it honours, is arguably better known, it was Bouza’s With verdure clad from Part 1 that truly sparkled, delivered with sweetness and grace. Both deservedly famous duets in Part 3, particularly By thee with bliss, sung by Bouza and Hegedus, not as angels, but as a distinctly lovestruck Adam and Eve were simply captivating.
Tenor Charles Davidson sang an engagingly lyrical Uriel. Davidson’s instrument has noticeably less spinto ping than those of Hegedus and Bouza but the Creation does not demand high octane dynamism from all of its soloists all the time. It does, however, insist on refined tone, luxurious timbre and superb technique, qualities this fine singer possesses in abundance. His rendition of Haydn’s homage to God’s ultimate creation — man, In native worth and honour clad, was filled with all the freshness and light of Haydn’s Enlightenment times. The extraordinary Part 2 terzetto, Most beautiful appear, with its complex fugue-like interplay of triple voices was appreciably enhanced by Davidson’s lustrous contribution.
If Haydn’s soloists convey the enduring sense of drama in the Creation, it is the chorus that supplies the wonder. Interjecting, commenting, boosting the overarching spirit of excitement and awe, the composer gifts this very vocal congregation with some of his immense oratorio’s most moving music. Each of the work’s three sections devoted to God’s achievements concludes with a boisterous outburst of ringing praise. Joined by members of England’s Trinity College Choir Cambridge, the Festival Singers, doubled in size to a 56-voice powerhouse, astonished from the first moment the double troop of choristers united in song. Haydn’s great swelling anthem, The heavens are telling, was electrifying, the Creation’s momentous conclusion, Sing the Lord, ye voices all, heartstopping.
The exceptional standard of musicianship displayed by the Elora Festival Orchestra throughout this rousing opening night concert deserves to be rewarded with an encore round of critical applause. The Creation, although eminently accessible, is far from musically simplistic. A master of orchestration from long years of practice, Haydn excels in compositional wizardry. Nature and the cosmos are brilliantly conjured, solemnly at times, wittily at others, in superbly crafted orchestral passages. Violins glow with sunrise and moonlight. Great whales swim from violas, cellos and basses. Lions roar, tigers leap, cattle stomp, all uniquely captured in supremely inventive melodies and motifs. The 41–player Festival Orchestra vaulted over each and every challenge.
In 1808, a final performance of the Creation was held in Haydn’s honour in Vienna. The composer, ailing and frail, was carried into the hall, seated in an armchair. Beethoven greeted him warmly. Antonio Salieri conducted the performance. Haydn was visibly moved. Weak and exhausted, he left at intermission. One year later he died.
Written at a time of deep personal renewal for Haydn, the Creation forever held a special place in his heart. With its towering performance, the 2014 Elora Festival has voiced its own resounding affection for this enduring classic.