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
Sunday 06 December 2009
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
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