When the Raleigh Oratorio Society (ROS) performed The Creation on Oct. 22 at Hayes Barton Baptist Church, the audience was able to relive happier times. Although not without flaws, the performance, under the direction of Alfred Sturgis, was extremely effective in places. The soloists, on whose efforts much of the work depends, were excellent, especially bass-baritone Alfred Walker. While not yet of star billing in his usual job at the Metropolitan Opera, this young singer more than qualified in his dual role as the angel Raphael and Adam. Another fine performance was put in by tenor Richard Heard. Soprano Elizabeth Packard Arnold as Gabriel and Eve has an excellent lyric voice but it was not quite strong enough to soar above the orchestra. And in ensemble singing with Walker and Heard, her voice simply vanished.
Which brings us to the orchestra and what is becoming an increasing problem with large pick-up ensembles, no matter how fine their individual members--rehearsal time. Sturgis simply didn't have enough time with them to tighten up entrances and dynamics, with the result that the orchestra frequently sounded ragged. Despite the live acoustics of the church, the orchestra could have provided more appropriate support for Arnold.
The chorus, now 185-strong and growing, was well rehearsed and did an admirable job. But while arranging the singers heterogeneously, instead of by sections, usually works well, fugato entrances were a bit rough, especially in the final chorus. Haydn depended greatly on tone painting and extreme shifts in dynamics to musically illustrate the text, and Sturgis was scrupulous in his insistence on making the most of them.
The Creation is an oratorio in the great Handelian tradition. During his sojourn in London in 1791, Haydn attended a performance at Westminster Abbey of Handel's Israel in Egypt with the proverbial "cast of thousands." Not only was he impressed by the Handelian oratorio, with which he had not been familiar, but he also saw a role for this combination of drama and worship during Vienna's Lenten season, when the opera was closed. He returned to Vienna with an old libretto in English for an oratorio on the Creation believed, but not confirmed, to have been originally intended for Handel, and which included stanzas from Milton's Paradise Lost. Haydn wrote and rehearsed the oratorio in secrecy, collecting the music from the musicians after each rehearsal. This insured that the premiere was a true surprise and that no pirated editions of the music would appear before the official publication. Sound familiar?
The premiere in Vienna in April 1798 was a huge affair--and huge success. Believe it or not, the ROS, which overflowed into the front pews of Hayes Barton Baptist, would have disappointed the composer, who complained about a performance in Amsterdam that had an orchestra of only 60-odd members.