Messiah, Coliseum, London
Les Arts Florissants Barbican, London

The soloists excel in ENO's new staging of a Christmas warhorse, but the chorus is unfashionably cumbersome

First performed in Dublin, on 13 April 1742, Handel's Messiah is an Easter oratorio, its subject the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. We should wait patiently for our annual fix of "Hallelujah!", the kiss-it-better coda to Part Two's bruising sequence of stricken choruses and outraged arias. But the sparkle and sweetness of Part One, with its ruminating flocks, discombobulated shepherds, excitable angels and consoling promise of peace, is as irresistible as a chocolate Advent calendar.

Let Bach have Passiontide, Handel can have Christmas, goes the rationale, inspired by the simplistic assessment of one composer as serious and the other as a showman. That dismayed lurch from the jaunty B flat major of "His yoke is easy" to the heavy G minor of "Behold the Lamb of God", the elevated serenity of the E major opening of Part Three (a small but significant step from the D major "Hallelujah!"), are devices Handel honed over decades of writing for the theatre, in a language foreign to his audiences. Key changes are emotive. But Messiah is as unlike opera as the St John Passion, the last oratorio to be staged for English National Opera by Deborah Warner, nine years ago.

Like the Passion, Warner's Messiah unfolds in a contemporary urban setting. Picked out in olive branches, lilies, the doom-laden gifts of frankincense and myrrh, the crown of thorns and the instruments of scourging, the dark gold of a Flemish altarpiece acts as counterpoint to Tom Pye's video backdrops of early-morning traffic, office blocks and scudding clouds. On stage, chambermaids make up the bed of an anodyne hotel room. A weary, loose-limbed teen flicks through television channels. A woman irons, swaying gently to the busy figures of the Overture in leggings and Ugg boots.

Here there are no characters, no single narrator, simply voices. One man frets in a hospital waiting room, awaiting diagnosis or news of a death. Another lays service sheets on the benches of a chapel, his back-story obscured by the Ready Brek glow of new faith. Among the chorus, the mood is mildly expectant, as though Alan Titchmarsh were about to appear with a brace of BBC cameramen and a truckload of mature plants. Then as John Mark Ainsley begins "Comfort ye", a small boy (Max Craig) skips into this collage of private crises and collective anticipation, our guide through a series of tableaux celebrating ordinary and extraordinary miracles and sorrows.

In Part One, Warner's staging is radiant with childlike sincerity. "There were shepherds" is narrated as a primary school Nativity play. A young mother celebrates the birth of her child in a dance of exhausted rapture ("Rejoice greatly"). The singing of soloists Ainsley, Sophie Bevan, Brindley Sherratt and Catherine Wyn-Rogers is authoritative, engaged, stylistically secure, clear and warm. Yet for all the lyricism of choreographer Kim Brandstrup's intoxicating fusion of classical, modern and street dance, there are as many moments of dismal banality as there are of arresting beauty.

Awkward in their depiction of communal fervour – expressed here in a Clintonesque double-handshake and arm-squeeze manoeuvre – and smart-casual costumes, ENO's chorus lacks the necessary agility for Handel's fugues. In Part Two, there isn't time to move the chorus members on and off the stage, so they remain either side of the raised area where dancer Christian From buckles in agony. Despite conductor Laurence Cummings's broad, purposeful beat and chiaroscuro dynamics, the sound is calcified and curdled. Which should come as no surprise after the St John Passion.

Excepting a bizarre reading of "Thou shalt break them" as a slick pep-talk, the least successful section is Part Three. Bevan's tender performance of "I know that my Redeemer liveth" from a hospital bed is outstanding, as is the uncredited violin obbligato in "If God be for us", but "Since by man came death" is frayed and sour and the mass resurrection from perspex sarcophagi is crass. It is sad that having transformed the orchestral sound for Partenope and Agrippina, ENO should be held back by its chorus. But with an audience used to the precision and flexibility of the Monteverdi Choir et al, I suspect Messiah should be left to the specialists.

British choirs shy away from the grands motets of Lully, Campra, Rameau and Desmarest, unnerved by the not-quite-triplets of notes inégales and the nasalised Latin pronunciation. Quite right too, I used to think. But the final programme of Les Arts Florissants' Barbican residency sounded as workaday as any Oxbridge ensemble's umpteenth Spem in Alium. With an orchestra led by Florence Malgoire – France's Monica Huggett – this concert should have scintillated, but a thick seam of cellos, viol and double basses made heavy work of Campra's Exaudiat te Dominus. Among the soloists, Cyril Auvity was exceptional for his Kermit-like haute-contre: a limp foil to Toby Spence's breezy, virile tenor. Drab and unengaged, this was a proletarian performance of music fit for the Bourbon kings.



'Messiah': (0871 911 0200) to 11 Dec

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea