Review: Labadie delivers rousing, generous Messiah

La Chapelle de Quebec performs in Southam Hall on Dec. 19.

My last review of the 20-teens was of Handel’s Messiah, a piece of music I’ve probably heard more often than any other, in this or any previous decade. Ubiquity and repetition are two reasons I normally cross reviewing it off my list, unless I’m presented with a compelling argument to break my own rule. 

For last night’s NACO performance, a few factors overrode my usual ban. The main attraction was the presence of Bernard Labadie, the unsinkable director of Quebec City’s Les Violons du Roy. Labadie was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2014 and endured months of aggressive treatment. The international classical music world was delighted and relieved when he returned to conducting in 2016; the only visible long-term effect of his illness is that he now leads the orchestra sitting down.  

Labadie did not make me regret my decision to add yet another Messiah to my record. His interpretation was so rousing, so generous, so lovingly, exquisitely detailed, that it made me fall in love with the work all over again. 

Bernard Labadie is the music director of La Chapelle de Québec. He is conducting Messiah at the NAC this week.

Every phrase was polished to a high sheen — I can only imagine the number and complexity of markings in the musicians’ scores — yet everything danced with freedom and spontaneity. The intrinsic theatricality of Handel’s music, and the high drama of the oratorio’s narrative — birth, death and resurrection — were rendered in high-definition. Tempi were vigorous but never vulgar, and subtle contrasts between legato and articulated passages created texture without weight. 

A reduced, chamber-sized NACO responded to Labadie’s direction by playing with infectious joy and no small amount of period ensemble élan. Certainly many of the musicians have training and experience in historically-informed performance; some of the string players may have been using their Baroque bows, although it was hard to confirm from a distance. 

Aside from Labadie, the concert’s other draw was the promise of hearing La Chapelle de Québec, the superb professional choir attached to Les Violons. Arranged in two, single-file semi circles on either side of the organ, the virtuoso vocal ensemble did not disappoint, with fleet, limpid, laser-cut singing.

I have rarely seen as much excitement around a singer’s first Ottawa engagement as for alto Avery Amereau. The Florida redhead made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2016 at 25, and has gone on to one glittering opera house and concert stage appearance after another, cultivating a special interest in Baroque music. The instrument is already impressive, exceptionally deep but glowing and clear, with the tantalizing promise of even more richness and power to come (contralto voices typically mature and peak later). Even in Handel’s most florid writing, she conveys calm dignity, poise, and admirable musical restraint. 

However, the star of the vocal quartet was English bass-baritone Matthew Brook, a singer so expressive, so communicative, so committed to telling a story first and foremost, that he could sing you the Wikipedia page about sea snails and you’d still be hanging on every note. Brook is an artist at the height of his powers, with a splendid, focused, ringing tone, athletic breath control, agility supported from the core, and judicious use of portamento, falsetto, and mezza voce. The Trumpet Shall Sound — performed almost like a chamber duet with Karen Donnelly — was just about the most exciting thing I’ve heard all year. And for all that, it was charming to see Brook quietly mouthing the bass line to the Hallelujah Chorus in his seat. 

Tenor Aaron Sheehan was stylishly eloquent, but often sounded thin and constricted, and appeared to struggle with his melismas at Labadie’s furious tempi. But if Sheehan was inconsistent, German soprano Marie-Sophie Pollak was utterly inadequate. I’ve heard amateurs, and indeed 12-year-old boys, with more secure vocal technique and louder projection. Pollak has a tiny, breathy head voice, with an unpleasant, bleating caprino vibrato. With no support, it’s not surprising that her intonation is so unreliable — the first two notes of I Know My Redeemer Liveth were painfully flat, and her fioritura and ornaments were slurred rather than articulated. Even her English diction was off,  furry with Italianate rolled Rs, odd vowels and random diphthongs. 

Sopranos who can sing Messiah competently practically grow on Christmas trees this time of year, so this was a baffling choice on behalf of an otherwise pitch-perfect conductor.

This concert repeats Thursday night at 7 p.m.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.