Handel, Messiah, English National Opera

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The Independent Culture

Messiah has always been about the communal experience, the shared tradition – especially at Christmas. We dutifully stand for the “Hallelujah!” chorus, feeling but perhaps not really understanding the release it brings, and why.

That moment in Deborah Warner’s stage realisation is designed to be cathartic in much the same way as the chorus “Worthy is the Lamb” is at the close, but only because these ancient biblical texts are dramatised and illuminated from the perspective of our own experiences of life and death. What she has done here is simple, it’s lucid, and it’s definitely about us.

Moments into Handel’s opening Sinfonia she and her set designer Tom Pye have effected a seamless “dissolve” from a metaphysical image of a human form prostrate among countless golden lilies seemingly floated in thin air to a living, moving, cyclorama of a busy inner-city skyline not a million miles from where we are sitting. Suddenly the stage is filled with the likes of us going about our daily business. A woman waits in a lonely hotel room, a bored teenager crashes in front of the TV, there’s a mother ironing, men at the job centre. “Comfort Ye”, sings the tenor (the excellent John Mark Ainsley), things are going to get better - and with or without the sacred connotations we can relate.

And so this child that is about to be born is special because all children are special. To the strains of the chorus “For unto us a child is born” painted representations of the holy child proliferate on the cyclorama gradually to be joined by contemporary “snaps” of other children, “our” children: an amazing multiplying collage receding to infinity. The school nativity then plays out to adoring waving parents with camcorders before shifting to the hospital room, from crib to incubator. The same child holds the star and the marvellous Sophie Bevan – gloriously true – sings “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd”.

Suddenly one is hearing the texts from a 21st century perspective. They become much more immediate, and recognisable, and personal, so that the outrage of “He was despised” – wonderfully realised with increasing bitterness and raspingly dark colours by Catherine Wyn-Rogers – becomes genuinely uncomfortable. Likewise Warner’s idea of having that most serene of arias “I know that my Redeemer liveth” sung by a dying woman. You have to see the show to understand the effect that this harrowing counterpoint has at this point. Even the sonorous Brindley Sherratt proclaiming that “The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised” was small consolation.

I did at times wonder if the conductor Laurence Cummings, normally such a force of nature in this repertoire, was having to make some concessions to the physical pacing on stage - or indeed to the valiant ENO Chorus, unaccustomed as they are to such intricate and exacting part-singing. They didn’t always deliver the force and precision we’ve come to expect in the piece. “Hallelujah!” can never be enough of a “public racket” for me. But what other opera chorus could throw itself so heartily into so daunting a challenge?

The final “Amen” saw the stage filled to bursting, Warner ensuring that we left the theatre feeling in some small way renewed.