STORY WRITTEN BY JOE BARRON
In opera, the tenors get all the sexy, heroic parts, as well as most of the title roles. Lower-voiced men are most often cast as heavies, father figures or comic relief. One notable exception to the vocal discrimination is Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah,” which The Choristers will perform April 25 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale.
Mendelssohn had the inspiration to make his noble, defiant prophet a baritone, giving him an authority a higher voice would have lacked. For the Choristers’ performance, music director David Spitko went Mendelssohn one better and hired a bass-baritone who would bring even greater weight to the music. The part of Elijah will be sung by 31-year-old Justin Hopkins, who is making his debut with the group. Hopkins’ voice is somewhat lower than the one called for in the score, but while the tessitura sits at the upper end of his range, he finds he can hit all the high notes comfortably. He calls the role “a good stretch.”
“It concerned me,” Hopkins said in telephone interview April 8, “but as I’ve been coaching it I found that Felix Mendelssohn knew what he was doing. He wrote well for the voice.”
The oratorio was a stretch for the composer as well. Mendelssohn is known today primarily for such lighthearted, digestible fare as the Violin Concerto in E Minor and the incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In “Elijah,” however, he aimed at high drama, and in a form that was becoming obsolete in his lifetime. He turned for his models to the masterworks of the previous century — Handel’s ubiquitous “Messiah” and the great Passions of his hero, Johann Sebastian Bach.
“I’d say that this is one of the most exciting roles that I’ve ever prepared,” Hopkins said. “‘Elijah’ is a gem. It’s known, but in the light of ‘Messiah,’ it’s almost a hidden gem. So it’s a rare opportunity for me to sing this role, and I’m just thrilled to be taking it on.”
Most oratorios are sacred works on Biblical themes, and as such, they are usually presented as straight concert pieces, with the soloist reading from the scores. While the full operatic treatment, with costumes and scenery, might have been possible, the resort to spectacle would have been considered profane. Today, the concert world is less inhibited. The Choristers’ performance will be partially staged, with the soloists memorizing their parts and wearing stoles, which they will change whenever they change character.
Hopkins will remain Elijah throughout the evening, of course, but mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis gets to show off her dramatic range as an angel in the first half of the oratorio and, after the intermission, as Elijah’s nemesis Jezebel, whose name has become synonymous with depravity. In the story, the prophet seeks to restore the people’s faith in the God of Abraham. Jezebel, whose power rests on worship of the idol Baal, naturally objects.
“He is threatening her god system,” DuPlantis said in a phone interview. “This is one of those things we live with still. These Biblical stories are as old as the hills and as fresh as yesterday’s paper.”
Casting the mezzo as both angel and devil might have been a musical decision on Mendelssohn’s part, and maybe even a way to save money on singers, but for DuPlantis, it carries a deeper meaning. Everyone struggles with a dual nature, she said. Evil lies in the heart of even the best of us, and we must constantly be on guard against it.
On the other hand, as every actor knows, it’s fun to play a villain.
“Oh, it’s super fun,” DuPlantis said. “You’re acting and you give it full vent. You believe 100 percent in your cause and what your goal us — especially when the music is as juicy as it is.”
IF YOU GO
What: The Choristers, directed by David Spitko, present “Elijah.”
When: Saturday, April 25, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Trinity Lutheran Church, 1000 W. Main St., Lansdale.
Tickets: $25 in advance, $30 at the door. Seniors: $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Students (high school/college): $5 in advance, $10 at the doors.
Info.: Call (215) 542-7871 or check www.TheChoristers.org , or info@TheChoristers.org.