Read the original article in The Oregonian here.
Since taking the artistic helm at Oregon Repertory Singers two seasons ago, Ethan Sperry (conducting, left) has not lacked for vision and drive. While also directing choral activities at Portland State University to great acclaim and international awards, he has reinvigorated ORS with an expanded roster, fresh energy and ambitious programming. No surprise, then, that he opened the ensemble’s 40th season with one of the great blockbuster oratorios, Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.”
Begun in 1836 and ten years in the making, “Elijah” is a huge two-hour drama telling the story of the Old Testament prophet’s victory over Ahab and the priests of Baal, his withdrawal into the desert and his ultimate ascension. Modeled on the oratorios of J.S. Bach, Handel, and Haydn, it sets biblical texts for multiple soloists and chorus and with the full expressive and sonic resources of 19th-century opera, including full orchestra.
Friday night at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, the stage appeared barely able to contain the vast forces, which included over 90 singers and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The reigning figure was guest baritone Richard Zeller in the title role, and his performance alone would have been worth the price of admission His imposing presence and mighty voice expressed Elijah’s fearsome power and zeal, but his warmth, conviction and gentleness — including quiet, lyrical, high passages — lent nuance, fleshing out a sympathetic portrait.
The standout among the many lesser soloists was the ensemble’s longtime leading soprano, Debbie Benke, who was ringing and radiant as the widow whose son is saved by Elijah’s prayers. Tenors Alex Greenshields and Doug Rank gave strong performances as Obadiah and Ahab, respectively.
Sperry led ably with energy and control, maintaining a sense of forward motion while keeping balance both within the chorus and between chorus and orchestra. A huge, mostly amateur ensemble is prone to some fuzziness and a lack of dynamic range, and there was some of that — occasional vague diction, blurred articulation and few captivatingly quiet moments. But the sound was magnificent and the general contours were sweeping and effective. The orchestra too met the challenges of the demanding score with responsive, mostly robust playing and numerous fine details, particularly from wind principals and timpani.