Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra dedicated this performance of Handel's Messiah, with soprano Siobhan Stagg, to the late Dame Elisabeth Murdoch.

It just wouldn’t be Christmas without a Messiah or 12. There are plenty to choose from, either as a listener or participant, ranging from a grass roots local church or choral group to a fully professional offering from the former ABC orchestras; but of all of these, nothing could be quite as special as a performance by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra.


With this 233rd performance of Handel’s masterpiece, the venerable RMP is now the world record holder for singing the greatest unbroken sequence of annual Messiah performances. As Australia’s oldest continuously existing musical organisation, the RMP has achieved legendary status. Since 1998 its reputation for fine music-making has been entrusted to the inspirational leadership of Music Director and Chief Conductor, Andrew Wailes. Audiences have come to expect uplifting, dynamic performances with carefully nuanced attention to detail. On Sunday evening that is exactly what they got.


Despite an imbalance in the numbers, with sopranos out-ranking tenors three to one, Wailes commanded his forces to ensure that all sections of the choir were audible. Diction and notes were clearly articulated, while dynamics were carefully shaped with precision attack to the fore. The sopranos delighted with a fresh, relaxed clarity, even at the upper extremities, and the men sang strongly and with conviction. Not surprisingly, given its history, the RMP Choir was able to devote its full attention to the conductor, singing without the score for certain key choruses. The ‘Halleluia Chorus’ was a case in point. In accordance with tradition, the audience and soloists stood, and everybody revelled in the glorious sound. So thrilling was this outpouring that after a standing ovation at the end of the oratorio, the audience demanded an encore. Even though the soloists were facing the choir, they could be seen joining in the singing along with some members of the audience.


There was also much to admire in the work of the soloists. Siobhan Stagg’s first Messiah was eagerly awaited by her growing number of fans. The allure of her distinctive voice once again illuminated the music at every turn. The ease of her precise, fluid coloratura for ‘Rejoice’ was complemented by a warmly expressive legato for ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’. When she sang ‘How beautiful are the feet’, you could not help but think how beautiful is the voice. Siobhan Stagg has a very rare talent that is bound to attract international recognition as she continues to make her mark overseas.


Daniel Todd sang the tenor solos with bright, well-projected tone. Dominica Matthews and Nathan Lay were impressively eloquent, but their mezzo-soprano and baritone voices were unable to provide the depth and rich colour that is generally expected for the contralto and bass recitatives and arias. This was at least partly compensated for by unusual ease in their upper registers and, particularly in Lay’s case, a formidable mastery of florid passages. ‘The trumpet shall sound’ was given a stirring treatment by Lay with Carl Harvoe on a sweetly ringing trumpet.


A mixture of tertiary music students and excellent seasoned professionals, the orchestra responded to Wailes’ brisk tempi with enthusiastic energy. As with the choir, attention to detail added to the drama and vitality of the performance.


Along with a number of Melbourne performances over the last few days, this one was dedicated to the generous friend of the RMP, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch. It is an indication of her enthusiasm and commitment that she attended RMP concerts even at the age of 100 plus. She would have been gratified that her loyal support was so clearly vindicated by the quality of this performance. I am sure she was there in spirit.


Rating: 4 stars out of 5


Handel’s Messiah

Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra

Andrew Wailes – conductor

Siobhan Stagg – soprano

Dominica Matthews – mezzo-soprano

Daniel Todd – tenor

Nathan Lay – baritone


Melbourne Town Hall

9 December

Heather Leviston

Monday 10 December, 2012

About the author

Heather Leviston is a Melbourne-based reviewer.