Messiah - English National Opera, 27 November 2009
There are more Messiahs than brussels sprouts around at this time of year, so quite why ENO felt the need to offer us yet another one is beyond me. For a company struggling with the recession it doesn't make financial sense either. Who, aficionados aside, wants more than one Messiah per annum? And who wants to fork out up to £90 at the Coliseum when you can pay under half that elsewhere? Unlike its competitors this one is of course staged. But as Handel neither intended the magic of theatre to illuminate his artistry, nor wrote his music to accommodate such impertinence, it's an uphill struggle for Deborah Warner to make any sense of it.
Of course she fails dismally. The singers, in some artful version of their own clothes (Moritz Junge is credited as costume designer) play ordinary people doing ordinary stuff like sleeping, ironing, watching telly and loafing about. Presumably by such humble devices we are supposed to see the humanity and universality of the biblical messages. Tourists may well be intrigued by this glimpse into the everyday life of their host city, but personally I felt patronised and bored. And littering the stage with cute tots might work for the older section of the audience, but perhaps Warner doesn't realise many visit the theatre precisely to escape from that sort of thing. Some excruciatingly obvious acting-out of the birth, nativity and scourging added precisely nothing to the music.
Worse still were the attempts at narrative overlay. What makes Messiah so impossible to stage is the illustrative, discontinuous nature of the texts. Slapping on a story line where it doesn't fit just emphasises the problem. The worst culprit was a Thou shall break them made silly and ironic in order to accommodate the vicar's picnic Hallelujah Chorus which followed. One of the greatest moments in the whole work, vandalised.
The great shame was the amount of time and skill invested in this flawed conception. Elegant, minimal sets, atmospheric lighting and stunning back-projected paintings and cityscapes were only part of it. There was some fine if generally underprojected singing from the soloists Sophie Bevan, Catherine Wyn Rogers, John Mark Ainsley and Brindley Sherratt. Laurence Cummings chose stately tempos which didn't flatter the orchestra's contribution, but a fine balance was struck between period style and the need to fill the vast Coliseum. The chorus, amazingly, made every single word clear, though their sound was top-heavy and lacking in enthusiasm. I wonder why.
Still, Deborah Warner has succeeded in bringing a little festive cheer to the terminally grumpy, which must be some kind of achievement.
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