CAMBRIDGE - Not the least pleasure of the Back Bay Chorale's Friday performance of Felix Mendelssohn's "Elijah" was the match of repertoire and venue. Bach's sacred works seem to divide their time between stone cathedrals and a theological library's austere riches; Handel, even at his most pious, never strays far from footlights and a proscenium arch. But the intimate Victorian grandeur and carved-wood warmth of Sanders Theatre were an architectural echo of Mendelssohn's sure-footed, unfailingly polished biblical epic.
"Elijah" tells of the prophet foreseeing a divine drought, raising a widow's son from the dead, turning Israel from its worship of Baal, escaping the murderous wrath of Queen Jezebel in broad, self-possessed strokes, a juxtaposition of finely-shaded moods. Music director Scott Allen Jarrett emphasized structure and expanse with precision, building the sound on a sturdy orchestral foundation of low strings and brass, giving each musical paragraph a stately preacher's cadence.
Tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan was a clarion, gorgeously ringing and heroically consistent from top to bottom. Gigi Mitchell-Velasco's mezzo-soprano was like enameled iron, dark and glinting; she exhibited interpretive extremes - a too-ethereal angel, a too-snarly Jezebel - but when she split the difference, the result was compelling. Soprano Anne Harley, stepping in on impossibly short notice, was unusual casting: pure and silvery in a part traditionally sung by heavier voices. Nevertheless, she parsed Mendelssohn's rhetoric beautifully, her musicality bringing to the fore the composer's innate melodic elegance in even the most dramatic moments. (Amanda Jellen, Lexa Ferrill, Derek Chester, and James K. Bass filled smaller roles with assurance; boy soprano Alexander Pattavina waited for rain with delicate sine-wave tones.)
Baritone Richard Zeller gave Elijah operatic flair and presence with a warm, open, ample tone. He was at times irrepressibly pleased to be doing the Lord's work, confidently mocking the Hebrews' misplaced trust in Baal, delivering God's word with stentorian aplomb; but he also brought stoic gravity to "It is enough," resigned to the possibility of death, anxious whether his best efforts have been for naught.
"Elijah" demands range from the chorus, alternating between acting and reporting, between fury, penance, and praise. The Back Bay Chorale was excellent: solid diction, exemplary balance, ringing, steadfast intonation even in mixed-voice formation. The members showed both hushed evenness and bright power, but also brought forth those typically Mendelssohnian moments where the power suddenly blossoms with warmth - the chorale at the end of "Yet doth the Lord," the similar peroration of "Be not afraid." At moments like those, "Elijah" embodies both the full-blooded spectacle of the story and the comfortable familiarity of its retelling.