WILLIAMSTOWN -- It was an intriguing concept, though probably not new: a staging of Mendelssohn's "Elijah."
The oratorio is full of dramatic effects -- not just the crowd's cries to the false gods of Baal, but also the more contemplative moments such as the prophet's sorrowing aria "It Is Enough." An unadorned concert performance can conjure up movie-like images of the story from famine and lamentation at the start to the final rejoicing in the Lord.
Director Brad Wells had thought to lead the Williams Concert Choir and Orchestra in a dramatization at Williams College. Alas, the idea ran afoul of the limitations of the Chapin Hall stage. Instead, in a shortened version of the work, he and his forces brought the drama to life through music alone in Friday and Sunday performances.
Nature added a bit of extra drama: bright spring sunlight falling through the west windows onto the performers, especially when the Elijah, bass-baritone Keith Kibler, pleaded with the Lord in "It Is Enough." If the sunlight was distracting to the musicians, it seemed to illuminate the music from on high as well as within.
Three things stood out in the performance, as heard on Sunday: Mendelssohn's debt to Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," which Mendelssohn had earlier revived after a century of neglect; the restraint with which Wells limned the drama, despite opportunities for overstatement; and Kibler's characterization, with his booming, sonorous voice, of Elijah's travails and triumph.
Again and again, Mendelssohn's Old Testament settings recalled Bach's from the New Testament, filtering them through a romantic sensibility. Also noteworthy: Wells moved to Mendelssohn's tireless choral hit only a few weeks after Caroline Shaw won the Pulitzer Prize for her "Partita," which Wells premiered and recorded with his other ensemble Roomful of Teeth. How's that for shifting gears?
"Elijah" tells a story from the first and second books of Kings, stopping short, however, of the prophet's fiery ascent to heaven in a whirlwind. Even without a staging, Chapin Hall proved confining, its resonances blurring the chorus' and soloists' words in the English text. Printed texts for the audience partly offset the problem.
Wells paced the big Baal sequence so that the chorus' desperate cries to the false gods didn't lead to anticlimax in the following numbers. Kibler ranged through many moods in this section, from penitence to anger, from wheedling to vengeance.
In the lesser roles, tenor Richard Miller brought a lyrical quality to his solos, recalling the Evangelist in Bach's passions. Soprano Kerry Ryer-Parke and alto Katherine Beck used their smaller voices intelligently.
Despite a few scrambled moments, the 28-voice chorus -- mostly Williams students -- sang with unity and fervor, evoking tempest and earthquake but also comfort as an angelic choir; the orchestra also provided good service. Wells yielded the baton to student chorister-conductor Will Speer for two numbers. There was talent aplenty in those ranks.