Abraham, an oratorio

I really wanted to like David Warrack’s new piece Abraham that premiered last night at the Metropolitan United Church.  It’s described as an oratorio and tells the story of the patriarch Abraham and uses that as a jumping off point for arguing for the breaking down of barriers between Jews, Christians and Muslims based on their shared heritage(*).  Given recent events in Canada and elsewhere that’s obviously a worthy goal and the whole thing was in aid of the Metropolitan United Church Syrian Refugee Fund; reason enough, in itself, to go.

I knew I was going to have to approach the piece with a very open mind.  Warrack is a musical theatre guy and musical theatre isn’t my musical sweet spot.  I quite like some of the older corpus of classic Broadway musicals but the sort of fare served up by the Mirvish empire most of the time leaves me cold.  Bear that in mind in reading my comments.  Your mileage, as they say, may differ.  So what worked for me and what didn’t?  I liked the choral music.  There was both a children’s chorus, The Bach Children’s Chorus, who sang their relatively straightforward parts rather beautifully, and an adult choir, The Elmer Iseler Singers.  They got some of the most complex and modern sounding music in the piece and sung it with great skill, though the texts tended rather to get lost in the acoustic of the enormous church.  There were no surtitles.

The libretto I really struggled with.  It’s very wordy.  Much of it is spoken narrative; conveyed with great clarity by Ramona Joy Carmelly.  A lot of it is in rhyming couplets but it’s pretty short on poetry.  It gets quite preachy in places.  I found myself wondering how, say, Alice Goodman, would have approached the task.  More imagery, fewer words, more poetry perhaps?  As it is, it feels more like a Sunday (or Saturday, or Friday) School lesson than an oratorio libretto.

Then there was the music for the soloists and their performance style.  Here we were very much in musical theatre territory with mostly fairly straightforward, tonal music of the Mirvish musical kind.  Not really my bag but fair enough.  What I struggled with here was that the ensemble did not appear to have found a common performing style for it.  Three of the soloists; Meredith Hall as Hagar, Ramona Joy Carmelly as The Angel and Hussein Janmohamed as Ishmael sang the way classically trained singers tend to sing when they are miked for a musical.  It’s not operatic but they sing on the note and give full and correct value to every syllable, especially the consonants.  Theresa Tova, as Sarah, and, especially, George Krissa as Isaac sang in what I think of as a very New York musical theatre style.  It’s quite histrionic, notes are smeared for effect, consonants are swallowed and the letter “t” is banished from the alphabed.  Richard Margison, in the title role was something else again.  He is, of course, an operatic tenor of very considerable power.  He’s also quite capable of singing Gordon Lightfoot covers.  I’ve heard him do both.  But I haven’t heard him try and do both in the same line before.  Heldencrooner might describe the style.  I think one could make a case for the title role having a distinct vocal style.  Abraham is The Man and he’s larger than life.  That said Margison’s big voice really rather dominated ensemble numbers he was in.  He buried Krissa in their Act 2 duet.  As to the others, I really think some kind of unity of vocal style was needed.  I might prefer the more classical approach but perhaps the other way might work too.  A combination didn’t.  The accompaniment was stripped down musical theatre; a couple of pianos and a guitarist with both acoustic and electric instruments.

The final element in the piece was the use of Sufi singers and dancers to introduce each half.  I’m assuming the music was traditional devotional music.  No texts were available and it was sung in Turkish (I think).  There were also Sufi dancers who were rather more sedate than the term “whirling dervish” might suggest.  The “whirling” was curiously reminiscent of the ladies of the Opera Atelier Ballet.  I enjoyed the music but I couldn’t see any connection to the rest of the work and it was certainly a mystery why the Sufis appeared twice.  That they packed up and left immediately after their second set rather suggested that they weren’t terribly invested in the rest of the piece.  Their inclusion also made the piece very long.  With an interval it ran two and a half hours.

Overall this felt more like a work in progress with potential than the finished thing.  If it were tightened up dramatically (and shortened) and made a bit more consistent in performance style it could be a lot more effective.  I think too, if the Sufis are going to be used to more than ecumenical effect they need to be given a role in the drama.  There’s no reason why an oratorio cannot be both didactic and dramatic, as Charles Jennens and George Frederick Handel showed, but I think it needs a bit more creative tension and less sprawl than Abraham currently displays.

(*)Whether a shared mythology is a viable basis for tolerance and understanding is a different and rather vexed question.  It certainly didn’t do much for Athens and Sparta.

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