TAMPA — For a listener, when Leon Williams, in the title role of the prophet, makes his solemn entrance in the opening recitative of Elijah, it is as if you're poised at the top of an epic musical experience. And then when the orchestra swings into the restless overture, the drama takes hold and never lets up for the rest of the evening.
Mendelssohn's Old Testament oratorio was given a magnificent performance Friday by the Florida Orchestra, the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, the University of South Florida Chamber Singers and a quartet of stupendous soloists. Music director Stefan Sanderling was on the podium at Morsani Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
Williams superbly communicated the text in his clear, expressive baritone. A highlight was the resonant warmth he brought to the aria "It is enough," which featured an immaculate solo by principal cello James Connors. The other dominant role in the oratorio is that of the chorus. Prepared by Joseph Holt, it ranged beautifully from the huge sumptuous sound of choruses like "And then we shall see whose God is God the Lord" to the angelic lightness of "He, watching over Israel."
Part I of Elijah is perfectly shaped; it begins with drought and ends with rain. Part II gets preachy and long-winded, but it still had plenty of wonderful moments Friday, such as soprano Heidi Grant Murphy's performance of the high, floating aria "Hear ye, Israel." Mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi cast an enchanting spell in the famous "O rest in the Lord." The interplay was seamless between Williams and tenor Philippe Castagner, whose conversational style was ideal for the roles of Ahab and Obadiah.
A complete Elijah runs well over three hours, but that is rarely done anymore. Friday's performance incorporated some cuts and was about 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The last time the orchestra and Master Chorale presented Mendelssohn's masterpiece was in 1997, and that was a great occasion, too. Maybe next time they should perform his New Testament oratorio St. Paul.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.