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Princes And Princesses Of Glory 

Oreos deliver a powerful Messiah

For one magical evening, the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte brought the king of Yuletide oratorios, Handel's Messiah, to Belk Theater. After decades of performing this masterwork in local churches with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, the Oreo's triumphal march on the PAC was long overdue -- albeit upstaged by Clay Aiken's "Joyful Noise" idolatry at Bobcats Arena.

Lovers of the sacred music had to tolerate the traffic and pay a premium. Tiered ticketing replaced the general admission chaos of previous years. So instead of a flat $20 and a scramble for your chosen pew, you could claim seats at the ceremony for $14-$44. Getting there added to the fun -- and the cost. We shelled out $10 for parking after swerving around the sheep lined up for blocks at the Municipal Lot. Dumb rubes.

Was it worth it? I'd guess the man who sat behind me in orchestra Row E, weeping throughout Parts II and III of the performance, wasn't fretting over the money he'd spent. Neither was I.

Under Oreo director Scott Allen Jarrett's baton, this Messiah was powerfully inspiring -- yet, at key moments, delivered with a surprisingly light touch. That was the key revelation of shepherding CSO's Christmas celebration from the wayward acoustics of local churches to the princely Belk. Last year's rites were performed at First United Methodist Church, slayer of all sonic subtlety. I bypassed that butchery.

Last week's performance was a reminder of how tender and affecting this work can be. Jarrett judiciously reduced the size of the orchestra, enhancing their lightness and sleekness, and radically sliced his Oreos, discreetly labeled the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte Chamber Chorus in the program booklet.

Dividends of this streamlining quickly became apparent. The Chamber Chorus infused a lilting sway to their first showpiece, "And the Glory of the Lord Shall Be Revealed," reminding us that Handel had levitated it with a waltzing 3/4 gait. Placement of the voices across the Belk stage gave fresh clarity to the contrapuntal delights of "And He Shall Purify." Above all, the opening of the "Hallelujah Chorus" was arresting in its simplicity, building grandly to glory instead of constantly blasting us with it.

All four of the soloists did themselves proud in their Messiah debuts. Among the three making their CSO bows, tenor William Hite made the most thrilling first impression. His airy delivery of "Ev'ry Valley Shall Be Exalted," while not as swift as some of the recorded versions I've enjoyed, was super-smooth and lithe, prompting this notation in my program: "B-bye, William. You're destined for high places."

Sad to say, Hite was more comfortable leading off the vocal fireworks than waiting for his encores. "Thou Shalt Break Them" was secure enough preceding the chorus's "Hallelujah" but without quite the same magisterial confidence as before -- and he didn't roll his r's with the same gusto.

Maybe he felt upstaged by his comrades. Certainly mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy brought her best game with her for the alto airs. The difficult tessitura of "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion" lay perfectly for her. She dove in gracefully to "the cities of Judah" where others I've heard live have had to scoop to reach the final low note. After intermission, her "He Was Despised" ached with pathos, topped off by a wondrous finishing trill on "acquainted with grief."

Like Hite, soprano Kendra Colton seemed to tighten during the trying wait for her solos. Fortunately, there was plenty of recitative runway provided to her before her blithe takeoff in "Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion." By then, Colton was loose and frisky, gamboling over some treacherous coloratura. The orchestra joined in the playful spirit, answering each of her "shouts" with transparent glee.

Most prepossessing of all was baritone Richard Zeller, endowed with a wide vocal range, sweet highs, rich lows, and a mighty stage presence. Hardly believing my good fortune after Hite's opening exploit, Zeller's warm-up recitative -- with its embroidered "shake all nations" -- elicited a notation of "Another find" in my program.

Yes, I'd forgotten how I'd raved over Zeller's heroics two years ago, when he faced down the Priests of Baal in the title role of Mendelssohn's Elijah. On that occasion, David Tang's valedictory as leader of the Oreos, Zeller routed the whole ensemble with his magnificence.

He was no less victorious last week. Zeller was as powerful as any baritone I've ever heard in Messiah, live or on CD. If you're not familiar with this music, you need only listen to the final 20-plus minutes of Bryn Terfel's Handel Arias to adequately gauge its grandeur -- culminating with an incomparable "The Trumpet Shall Sound" affirmation.

Tears were welling up in Zeller's eyes as he completed his climactic utterance. Rightly so. I was pretty choked up myself.

I still devoutly believe that Salvatore Aiello's version of The Nutcracker is the best anywhere. But after catching one of the last performances of North Carolina Dance Theatre's trusty evergreen this year, I'd have to fall back on the same wisdom routinely dispensed to Christmas shoppers. Getting the best impression of NCDT before the holidays is very much akin to finding your best selection of inventory at local retailers.

Do it early.

Mia Cunningham had vacated the lead role of Clara von Barron when this year's reprise of the Tchaikovsky ballet opened on December 9. Cunningham had the childish energy of Clara -- and the light wisp of her awakening sexuality -- down to her fingertips. Even on December 17, Rebecca Carmazzi, replacing Alessandra Ball, had yet to coax the elixir to her heart, let alone her extremities.

Other substitutions were equally displeasing. Tobias Parsons totally missed the eccentricity of Clara's caped benefactor, Herr Drosselmeyer. Benjamin Kubie's outrageous flamboyance -- not to mention Servy Gallardo's mischievous impulsiveness -- was supplanted by bland earnestness. Jhe W. Russell, replacing the cavalier Daniel Wiley, reverted to superficiality portraying the man of Clara's dreams, Hans Friedrich, her elder sister's fiance.

Traci Gilchrest satisfied as Anna, the elder sister, now fully the equal of Kati Hanlon Mayo in the role. But did they really need to plunk Mayo into the Arabian Jewel Box after she'd portrayed Clara's mom in Act 1? Ee-yew!

Jason Jacobs returned to the company in a guest stint as Clara's brother Fritz. Replacing newcomer Brian Arias, Jacobs continues to grow in the role. He still pushes a kid down to the snow with incongruous Santa Claus magnanimity in the opening scene, but once the party begins, Jacobs is the peskiest Fritz the company has produced.

Newbies in the audience sounded quite pleased with the performance. I wished they had seen just how incredible NCDT's Nutcracker can be.

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