Chorus of Praise for Grant Park Effort

June 18, 2008

Felix Mendelssohn went to the grave lamenting his operatic failures. But who needs sets, props and other trappings of the stage given the dramatic wallop of his grand oratorio “Elijah,” especially when presented with the passion of Carlos Kalmar's stirring account Friday at Millennium Park?

The weather continued to indulge in this first week of the Grant Park Orchestra season, and the crowd-control issues of a few days earlier were a distant memory.

Mendelssohn's masterpiece was in thoroughly committed hands and voices, courtesy of an orchestra with no audible cobwebs, a chorus in fine form and a stellar quartet of soloists.

The stars are currently aligned for choral fans, with CSO's "Requiem" of Verdi and the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven on either side of "Elijah." Director Christopher Bell has lifted the Grant Park Chorus to a level on par with its illustrious counterpart -- the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus across Michigan Avenue -- with the bonus of a busy performance schedule worthy of its lofty rank.

Librettist Julius Schubring and the prophet Elijah gave Mendelssohn plenty of fodder for dramatic exploration, including the raising of a child from the dead and the conjuring of rain for a parched Israel.

When Elijah repeatedly taunted the priests of Baal to call louder to their gods, Kalmar deftly coaxed his forces to shout in incremental levels of intensity.

Friday night one intervention from the urban soundscape was eerily auspicious: a convoy of shrill ambulance sirens accompanied Elijah's plea to God, " ... take my life!"

Baritone Russell Braun was unflappable in the din, and the cellos accompanied his supplications sweetly.

The spirit of Bach wafted through the tender and patiently paced chorale, "He that shall endure," and the unaccompanied women vocalists were the embodiment of angelic purity in "Lift thine eyes."

Along with Braun's commanding title role, tenor John Tessier effortlessly floated through the soaring lines of Obadiah's signature aria, "If with all your hearts."

Soprano Erin Wall has earned a loyal following with roles in Mozart and Wagner operas at the Lyric, and she was equally radiant in Mendelssohn's reverent airs.

The mezzo soprano role poses numerous challenges, with lines that dip into alto territory and multiple shifts between wildly contradictory characters. Anita Krause hit her stride in the gritty role of Jezebel, lustily delivered with generous helpings of bite and heft.

Michael Cameron, Chicago Tribune