This review was for the performance on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017.
Mendelssohn never left us an operatic masterpiece. He made several attempts throughout his career and even flirted with the idea of doing his own “Ring” long before Wagner actually completed one of his own, but ultimately, he will never be known as a composer for the theater.
But Mendelssohn did leave us “Elijah,” the closest we will ever come to understanding what an operatic gem would have sounded like. Though an oratorio in structure, “Elijah” has great dramatic potential, that hinges heavily on the lead singer and his ability to interact with the episodic text that the composer set to music. Throw in an ever-present chorus and orchestra, and the oratorio has operatic elements. Mendelssohn’s music jumps from heavily intimate to massive and epic, divided into two parts, each with an overture. It has arias, recitatives, and massive choral passages. It can be great theater.
And it was close to that at the Teatro Colón in Bogotá in a rendition featuring the Orquesta Sinfónica EAFIT and the Coro Sinfónico de La Universidad de los Andes led by Venezuelan conductor Carmen-Helena Téllez. The performance also featured an all-Colombian cast of soloists. The text, originally in German, was sung in English (Correction: The piece premiered in English in 1846, and exists in both English and German).
In the title role of Elijah was bass Hyalmar Mitrotti, who possesses a potent and thick timbre. He didn’t get off to the greatest of starts, his initial declamation of “As God the Lord of Israel Liveth” sung with an unsteady sound and a rather wide vibrato. But that became an afterthought thereafter, particularly as the oratorio unfolded. Mitrotti is asked to sing for close to an hour and it seemed that the deeper he got into the piece, the better he got. His diction was always on point, his voice grew in volume, his vibrato stabilized and he shone with an elegant legato line that was at its most glorious in the second part aria “It is enough; Lord take my life,” accompanied by solo cello. In arguably the most intimate moment of the entire oratorio, the bass made his voice weep, giving the listener a feeling of a conflicted prophet who can’t handle the challenges around him and yet doesn’t want to give up. The contrasting section during the second half of the aria featured sturdy sound, a new-found aggression in his singing that we had yet to hear that point. Also, worthy of mention is that the bass seemed at ease with the excruciatingly high tessitura that Mendelssohn demands of his lead singer, the high notes bright and potent. “Elijah” demands a singer that can essentially carry the piece and Mirotti was more than up to the task.
The oratorio calls for a number of other soloists, including two sopranos, two mezzos and a tenor. All of them acquitted themselves quite well though to varying degrees.
Of the sopranos, Beatriz Mora shone in her limited appearance. She didn’t appear until the start of the second part and her aria “Hear Ye Israel,” her voice soaring elegantly and with a sense of dynamic range.
This was not quite the case with soprano Ana María Ruge, who despite possessing a massive soprano sound, arguably the biggest of the entire cast, never quite gave us a taste of dynamic range in her solo sections as the widow. It was all rather loud and even in her duets from the first half, she didn’t quite adjust to the more subdued dynamics of her partners. She didn’t get any solos in the second half but was far more nuanced and restrained in her singing, matching up quite well with the other female voices throughout.
Mezzo-soprano Mónica Danilov was quite impactful in her appearances, her thick mezzo a radiant presence. Of all the soloists, her diction was the most refined, every word crystal clear. Her finest moments came in the first half of the oratorio, “Woe unto those who forsake him,” her solo passages sung with prayer-like delicacy. You could feel the build-up throughout the arioso, but Danilov retained a gentle approach throughout, her final enunciations of “Woe unto them,” given a subtle portamento (on the first) and crescendo (on the repetition of the phrase) that added a tragic dimension to the passage.
Mezzo Ximena Bernal was also quite solid in her solo passage at the start of the second half, the singer showcasing a precise diction and silky timbre to go along with it.
Tenor Luis Carlos Hernández possessed arguably the thickest accent of all the singers, which could be a bit distracting at times. Moreover, his ascensions into the ever-challenging tenorial passaggio were not always smooth and betrayed some challenges for the singer. That said, his middle register gleamed with bright sound and his singing in that part of his voice was sunny and warm.
Chorus and Orchestral Wildcards
The chorus put in a strong shift during this first performance, remaining a potent presence throughout, particularly at the close of each of the sections where they are called on to be their strongest.
The orchestra was probably the biggest wildcard of the evening, having some truly fine moments (the climactic final sections of the first and second half come to mind), but then having less than exemplary moments, such as the opening overture of the piece where the fugue-like entrances of each the string sections was a bit muddy and lacking in clarity. But they seemed to gain in strength as the night wore on and Téllez seemed to get more dynamism from the group overall. There were sections where one wondered whether the orchestra was capable of greater dynamic contrast, the volume often sounding quite similar from one passage to another, but one might blame the acoustics in the Colón’s orchestra section for this lack of noticeable contrast.
I must single out principal cellist Camilo Uribe for his, quite frankly, exemplary playing during the aforementioned solo “It is enough; Lord take my life.” He underscored the psychological potency of that particular aria, his cello playing vibrant without stooping to sentimentality by overusing portamento or other such expressive devices, allowing him to complement Mitrotti’s vocal interpretation.
On the account of this evening, Colombia seems to have quite a few singers that could have a major impact on a far larger scale in years to come. Many of the soloists have already begun their international careers and it is possible that in a few years’ time all of them might all be turning heads.