Surround Yourself in Song

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The Dream of Gerontius Review

by Mary Ellyn Hutton


Edward Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius” (1900) is called a sacred choral work instead of an oratorio because, unlike an oratorio, it is through-composed instead of being divided into movements.  Based on the 1865 poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman, the work was last performed at the Cincinnati May Festival in 1981, led by former music director James Conlon.  

“Gerontius” returned to the May Festival May 26 at the Taft Theater.  On the podium was Michael Francis, 37, music director of the Florida Orchestra in his May Festival debut.

Gerontius (meaning “old man”) is on his way to the afterlife, when visions appear to him.  There are angels, demons, a priest and friends of the dying man (called “assistants” in the score).

The performance, by the May Festival Chorus, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble of fine soloists, plus movement artists, made an outstanding impression on the Taft Theater audience.

The orchestral prelude was melancholy, setting the mood with a solo by principal violist Christian Colberg.  Gerontius (tenor Anthony Dean Griffey) prays to the Virgin Mary and a projection of candles appeared behind the stage.  His guardian angel, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung holding a lantern) sits before him.

The priest (bass Matthew Brock) bids Gerontius farewell.  Gerontius’ friends exit and his Soul begins its journey. accompanied by his guardian angel.

On the way, Gerontius meets a chorus of mocking demons, but his spirit revives.  Projections changed from mountains and plains to a valley and then a rising sun.  “I am refreshed,” sings Gerontius (the Soul).

The hour of judgment has come.  As Gerontius nears it, the Angel and the Choir of angels encourage him to be brave.  The souls of Purgatory and the Angel of Agony join in and huge blast emerged from the CSO.  Gerontius has arrived in Purgatory and his Guardian Angel assures him that she will “come and wake thee on the morrow.”