A MAJOR new Passion oratorio
in any genre is something to celebrate. The nave of Wells Cathedral
was packed for Omega and Alpha, a much-heralded new work
of almost 90 minutes by Martin Emslie.
Is it a success? There was
much for a supportive audience to applaud - not least a shivering
performance by the three excellent soloists and chorus alike.
Emslie, an experienced
choral director and thoughtful composer, has set out to produce a
full-scale work along the lines of the Passions of Bach and his
era, exploring a range of styles, and yet still delivering
something musically consistent, intense, and appealing.
Although the work provided
challenges for the large amalgamated chorus, drawn from Castle Cary
Choir, All Saints' Church Choir, the Oakfield Choir of Frome, and
Wincanton Choral Society (Somerset stalwarts all), Omega and
Alpha is very singable. So it will travel, and deserves
I itemise those choirs
because - especially when singing alongside the soloists - they
performed vividly. This was exciting singing, highly motivated,
strong in attack, varied and sensitive in dynamic, and well
Emslie has skilfully
generated a modern equivalent for the Bach chorale. His
enterprising pacing of these items, and the chorus's responsive
delivery, were exemplary.
Whether you think that the
work deserves to travel may depend on your view not just of the
music, but also of the often splendid text - by the composer, I
take it. This contained some nuggets (here is a Passion for the
21st, if also 19th, centuries), as well as a few more bits thin on
poetic flair. Frequently, it hits highs: for instance, the intense
extended passages (akin to the treatment in Bach's St John
Passion) for Pilate, sung by the magnificent bass-baritone
Gerard Delrez, who was terrific also as Judas (allotted almost as
much space as in Elgar's The Apostles) and St Peter.
Much of the music is on a
par with musicals: the Holy Week story told through a prism of
Les Misérables, say, or Godspell. Bearing this in
mind, it works well. There are intermittent banalities early on -
the rather vapid music of the opening section (of four), a series
of twisting chord-splurging harmonies, adds up to not much - but
soon it all picks up. This is true, even given the much-repeated
"This is my predicament, Knowing what to do. Where will the future
take us, And can I see it through?" - platitudes that even a
14-year-old might find inept.
It held up, and the whole
evening came off, because of the soloists - and largely the
extraordinary quality and musicality of the young tenor who sang
the part of Jesus with such personality, weight, and adeptness that
every phrase gained import and intensity. His high notes - to an
effortless top B - were wonderful.
Here was a young person's
Jesus, a Jesus Christ Superstar figure, but presented
without hype or saccharine. Emslie has given Jonathan Ansell, his
youthful soloist - once part of the pop-opera group G4, scorching
to celebrity on The X Factor, but now so much more than
that - a role that really tests his talents.
Ansell took the bull by the
horns: he gave his all, and every bit of it counted. Tiresomely,
the soloists had microphones: Ansell has no need of that. His voice
carries; it is well-supported; pearl after pearl, he has all the
gifts of a classical singer. We heard none of the strainings common
in the crossover world. He could take on anything: Mendelssohn,
Dvořàk, and Vivaldi are all his; and Lloyd Webber, too. But what he
captured, and what mattered, above all, was the spirit. The Gospel
story, in all its poignancy, beamed through him.
He had a rival. Marta
Fontanals-Simmons, the top-notch mezzo-soprano who tackled Emslie's
often super recitative and aria work in both mezzo and soprano
register, was a delight to hear (again with unnecessary
amplification). Often she acts as narrator: another nice original
touch in this tangibly expressive oratorio. Her enunciation was
stupendous. Her rich tones put me in mind of Sarah Connolly, Janet
Baker, and other greats. What a thrill, but not a surprise, to
encounter three soloists of this calibre and mettle in this
cathedral, whose musical standards are currently second to
If I make Omega and Alpha sound a mixed bag, this is
because it is. But at such a magnificent performance one forgave
almost anything - except some ghastly tuning in the wind and
strings (lower, especially) from the modest-sized orchestra in the
earlier part of the evening. At those points, omega for them. Alpha
for the brass and percussion.