Tainan YMCA chorale, Chiayi Culture Chorale and Cheng-Kung University Medical Chorale jointly performed Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah” at Tainan Culture Center in 2006, conducted by Ms. Li-Ying Shang. We have uploaded the recorded videos to our chorale’s YouTube site for public viewing and listening.
An oratorio is an opera without theater and it is comprised of orchestra, chorus and soloists. Because an oratorio has no sets, no costumes and no stage business, it demands on the imagination of the audience to recreate the scenes of the story. Elijah’s story is based on the Old Testament of the prophet’s faith, fearlessness, fight and flight which most Christians are familiar with — The prophet Elijah summoned the people to righteousness, performed miracles, and struggled against idol-worshipping. He confronted the wicked queen Jezebel. At the ends, Elijah rose to heaven in a fiery chariot.
The chorus in this oratorio plays the major role which is different from the chorus in opera that plays a subordinate role to the main characters. In Elijah, there are twenty-two numbers of chorus. The chorus plays multiple identities or personalities, for example: Israelite people, priests of Baal, the voice from heavan (angels), the cloud, a cliff-splitting rain storm, the raging sea and the consuming fire. In this 2006 concert, the performances of the chorus are admirable in all different identities and/or personalities. The chorus singing expressed beautifully the various moods of the Israelite people at different stages. The meticulously singing of the chorus and the play of the orchestra depicted vividly the cloud, the rains (The waters gather, they rush along! They are lifting their voices!), the stormy sea (The stormy billows are high, their fury is mighty.) and the fire. The conductor, Ms. Shang posted a review article on “Elijah” in Chinese (see Review Page) which is an excellent reference.
This post will not go to detail review of the performance. The author’s focal point is the battle between Elijah and the Baal priests in the Recitative and Chorus of Number 12 and Number 13. Here, the chorus members are now the priests of Baal. In the Recitative, Elijah jeers: “Call him louder! For he is a god. He talketh or he is pursuing, or he is on a journey, peradventure, he sleepeth; so awaken him. Call him louder!” The chorus of the priests of Baal blasts their voices loudly in singing “Hear our cry, O Baal! Now arise! Wherefore slumber?” Elijah mocks them again: “Call him louder! He heareth not. With knives and lancets cut yourselves after your manner; leap upon the alter ye have made, call him and prophesy! Not a voice will answer you, none will listen none heed you.” With increased intensity, the voices of the chorus rise again to the silent god: “Baal! Baal! Hear and answer”. It follows with an anxious pause. There is no answer which reflects the weakness and the despair of the Baal priests.
I feel a deep pain in listening to these passages. In Taiwan today, the tông-ki (乩童) behave just like those Baal priests in Elijah’s day — With knives and lancets cut yourselves after your manner. Sadly, many people believe in them and seek their advices. Here is the link to some terribly looking photos. (Faith in Tainan 台南的信仰). In Taiwan’s countryside, the folk religion’s false priests have strong influences on the people. They built temples, cast spells, lure the young and the uneducated into their networks and exert their influence on the local politicians. I had the opportunity to observe their activities during a short stay at Guogou, Chiayi. Here is the link of my post of Taiwan Folk Religion.
The superstition, the worship of false gods, the fear and despair of these people today resemble those in Elijah’s day. They need the Gospel to set them free and who will deliver the Gospel to them?
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
- Elijah Fed by the Ravens, a painting by Washington Allston.
- Prophet Elijah confounds the priests of Baal by Johann Heinrich Schönfeld