The introduction and opening numbers of Elijah show us the suffering of the Israelites during the three-year drought Elijah brings upon them. The population, including King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, has abandoned Yahweh and have taken worshiping Baal. One of the few remaining faithful to Yahweh is Obadiah, who runs the king’s palace. Knowing that their faithlessness has led Elijah to “close the heavens,” he pleads with the Israelites to revert to worshiping Yahweh, without reservation.
(As an aside, Obadiah’s aria is one of the staples of the tenor repertoire: a good length for auditions, challenging enough to show skill but not absurdly difficult, and a good tune to boot. Fairly or not, Mendelssohn is sometimes compared with Beethoven and found lacking, but writing idiomatically for voice is one way in which Mendelssohn is undeniably superior.)
It doesn’t work: the people believe that Yahweh ignores and mocks them, and will eventually destroy them; their chorus is filled with the interlocking tritones of the curse motive (“his curse hath fallen on us”). It’s important to note that they doubt neither the existence nor power of Yahweh, but instead have given up hope. Yahweh is a jealous God who punishes later generations for the sins of their ancestors; they do not believe succor from Yahweh is a possibility.
Yet the chorus ends in a peaceful C major with gently undulating strings and a text of reassurance: “His mercies on thousands fall.” The incongruity of this sentiment (essentially a reiteration Obadiah’s message of faithfulness) with the earlier anger and hopelessness suggests that this passage is best heard as extra-narrative; the chorus has switched from its Israelite crowd role to its commenting observer role. Mendelssohn and his librettist may have felt that the Israelites’ despair was too pessimistic to be left without an immediate rebuttal.
Next: Elijah makes a journey.