Over-familiarity with Handel’s Messiah has led me to ponder what it would have been like to have been part of that original Easter Sunday audience in Dublin in 1742. This performance of Haydn’s magnificent oratorio The Creation has given me a parallel opportunity. Having, I confess, never seen or heard the work before, I had the chance to experience it almost as would a Viennese burgher of 1798. That first performance reportedly sparked huge interest, with police deployed to control the milling crowds. At first I thought something similar was happening in Brisbane of 2004, with parking unexpectedly at a premium in the convention centre (but it turned out it was a rock concert upstairs.)
There are various parallels with Handel. Haydn wasn’t really an oratorio man, but greatly admired his predecessor’s work and was persuaded to have a go himself. Moreover, Handel had been offered an early libretto on the creation theme, but had never got around to setting it to music. Hence, Haydn was able to take the torch and carry it forward.
It is itself a great creation, and the Opera Queensland-led team brought forth a great rendition. Members of the OQ chorus, fresh from jousting with toreadors, were joined by young singers from the Conservatorium Chamber Choir as well as the Con’s Chamber Orchestra.
Conductor Graham Abbott was a sight to behold. Playing continuo from the Con’s priceless fortepiano while keeping the beat with his head and shoulders, he would “in the twinkling of an eye” leap up, conduct a beat or two with his hands, grab the baton, push in his chair and get behind it, all while directing his choral and orchestral performers in perfect timing.
His zest for the music communicated itself, and the choir rose wonderfully to the occasion, with some truly fantastic and memorable singing. Haydn’s music has many a suprise, in keeping with his famous symphony of that name. His music goes in unexpected directions, and he delights in the dramatic switch from near-silence to triple fortissimo, representing the transformation of darkness into light. Choir and orchestra gave it their all.
Recovering from the bullfights of the previous night, the Lyric Theatre was a nice venue for the performance more intimate than the concert hall and allowing the medium-sized orchestra to comfortably fill the stage. The higher strings were arranged on both sides of the podium, lower strings to the rear on the left, brass to the right and woodwinds to the rear. The ensemble gave a full-bodied and balanced sound. An occasional bit of roughness from the brass section was compensated for by impressive bass trombone work.
All three soloists excelled. Despite a slightly muffled opening, Andrew Collis’s robust and rich bass baritone gave us a stirring archangel and a very macho Adam, while Jaewoo Kim’s lovely tenor soared into the heavens. Leanne Kenneally as archangel and later as Eve was a sheer delight to hear. Her joy at singing her words was evident, especially in her wonderful With verdure clad the fields appear/ Delightful to the ravished sense/ By flowers sweet and gay/ Enhanced is the charming sight.
In this she captures the essence of Haydn’s nature-centred work. The helpful program notes quote musicologist H.C. Robbins Landon’s assessment that “perhaps only an old and very wise man could have written The Creation, and perhaps, too, only a sexagenerian could so poignantly recapture the bliss of the early morning, the magic of the moonlight, or the rapture of a spring day: these things which he knows will soon retreat beyond his grasp.”
Haydn’s libretto combines passages from Genesis and Psalms with extracts from Book 7 of Paradise Lost. (Purists should note that the English libretto is a back-translation by van Swieten from his own German version, and hence is not authentic Milton.) But it was wonderful to hear Miltonian poetic descriptions of these momentous events set to music. Most entertaining were the passages on the bringing forth of the animals, where for each species, bass recitative was followed by a musical representation of the new creature an 18th Century foretaste of Peter and the Wolf and Carnival of the Animals: Straight opening her fertile womb,/ The earth obeys the word,/ And teem creatures numberless,/ In perfect forms, and fully grown./ Cheerful, roaring, stands the tawny lion./ In sudden leap the flexible tiger appears. The nimble stag/ Bears up his branching head. With flying mane,/ And fiery look, impatient neighs the sprightly steed;/ The cattle, in herds, already seek their food/ On fields and meadows green./ And o’er the ground, as plants, are spread/ The fleecy, meek, and bleating flocks./ Unnumber’d as the sands, in whirls arise/ The hosts of insects. In long dimension/ Creeps, with sinuous trace, the worm.
As for the creation of man and woman Collis and Kenneally fully tapped the energy and exhilaration of this nubile couple, capturing Haydn and Milton’s intention of their purity and innocence together with quite some frisson to suggest they weren’t spending all their time naming animals. Their lovely duets were among the most memorable parts of the evening.
Fortunately Haydn didn’t spoil things by dwelling on the unfortunate circumstances that were to befall the happy couple just a one-line reference to remind us of that little slip-up. Instead he went for the celebration of the glory of creation, as did Opera Queensland and the talented young people of the Conservatorium in re-telling this great story to a new age.