Handel’s “Messiah” is one of the few pieces that the National Symphony Orchestra performs every year, like Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” on the Fourth of July. With something so familiar, surprise is a welcome sentiment for a listener. Nathalie Stutzmann made her NSO debut as conductor Thursday night, leading a whirlwind rendition of “Messiah.” It had its ups and its downs, but one seldom had any reason to doze off.
Stutzmann is a favorite singer of NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach. The French mezzo-soprano last sang with the orchestra in 2012, and she will return to Washington to sing Mahler’s “Rückert-Lieder” with Eschenbach in June. In 2009, Stutzmann founded a chamber orchestra called Orfeo 55, based in Metz, France. She has had some stints guest-conducting larger orchestras, including performances of “Messiah” this year with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
The quartet of soloists, all making their NSO debuts, was led by the fine tenor Lawrence Wiliford, best when he floated dulcet high notes and in melismatic passages but less effective when he tried to be forceful. Baritone Stephen Powell thundered and raged admirably, while contralto Sara Mingardo was sometimes covered by the orchestra. Airy soprano Emöke Barath wafted her way easily through the showpiece “Rejoice greatly,” at breakneck speed, yet oddly without much virtuoso panache.
Stutzmann seemed to connect most directly with the University of Maryland Concert Choir, superbly prepared by Edward Maclary. Stutzmann found in these young singers an enthusiastic partner, and they followed her gleefully, over cliff after cliff in some exceedingly brisk tempo choices. She may not have broken the speed record set for “Messiah” by Rinaldo Alessandrini in 2010, but she came close, clocking in at a performance time of two hours and 15 minutes, with fewer cuts than you might think.
“Messiah” is an odd duck among Handel’s oratorios in that the soloists do not take on roles in the scriptural narrative. Stutzmann centered her performance on the chorus, using all the tools of dynamics and articulation she had to give a vital urgency to what they were singing. “Who is this king of glory?” they sang in “Lift Up Your Heads,” pressing the listener for a reply. In “He Trusted in God,” they jeered at Christ’s sacrifice, with a nasal braying tone and laughing rapidity.
Stutzmann tried to soften some of Handel’s less-than-elegant English text setting, especially noticeable in the choruses he adapted from his own earlier Italian duets. She apparently decided there was nothing to be done with that awkwardly accented first word in “For unto us a child is born,” directing the chorus just to hammer it each time they sang it. The text Handel composed that phrase for began, quite humorously, “Nò, di voi non vo’ fidarmi” (No! I don’t want to trust you!).
The orchestra at times seemed less convinced by Stutzmann’s interpretation, and for the most part, she kept the musicians quite subdued whenever the chorus was singing. Her somewhat over-the-top gestures did not always communicate clearly, resulting in a few slightly confused beginnings to new pieces or sections. Violinist Alexandra Osborne, from the second violin section but seated as concertmaster for this performance, did an admirable job keeping the small group together at a few crucial spots. The continuo part, shared between organ and harpsichord as Handel did at the premiere but here with two players, was varied and fun, including a spry kick of the hooves at the line “Then shall the lame man leap as an hart.”
Downey is a freelance writer. The program repeats Friday, Saturday and Sunday.