HANDEL’S MESSIAH: THE LIVE EXPERIENCE at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane
“The soloists are captivating”
When Handel composed the music for “Messiah” in 1741 it initially had a mixed and modest reception and caused a rift between Handel and the librettist Charles Jennens. Handel completed the score in just over three weeks, the speed of which many perceived as a sign of ecstatic and divine energy but Jennens merely put it down to carelessness and laxity. Despite the faltering start, the oratorio gained in popularity eventually becoming one of the best known and frequently performed choral works. The ‘Hallelujah’ chorus being instantly recognisable and often performed as a standalone piece.
“Messiah” tells the whole life story of Christ from birth to death, and beyond. The go-to work to perform during the Easter or Christmas period, conductor Gregory Batsleer’s interpretation draws it away from the classical concert hall with the intention of pulling in a wider audience from the West End and beyond. The scale and ambition are on a grand scale; combining the London Symphony Chorus and the English Chamber Orchestra with four of the top soloists of the classical world. It is billed as an ‘immersive’ experience although the hype merely adds fuel to the debate as to what ‘immersive’ actually means in the theatrical context.
There is no getting away from the fact that the production is visually and aurally stunning. The libretto leaves more to be desired. A series of reflections and soundbites from the Old and New Testaments with none of the singers having any identifiable role. So, the success has to rely in part on the drama of the piece. The soloists are captivating: the soprano Danielle De Niese, Mezzo-Soprano Idunnu Münch, Baritone-Bass Cody Quattlebaum and tenor Nicky Spence perform with the requisite pageantry and purity, reinforced by the choir. The orchestra fleshes out the less muscular choruses to bring them in line with the stronger numbers, although the consistency does veer close to monotony at times. It is interspersed with narration from the charismatic Martina Laird and Arthur Darvill as ‘Mother’ and ‘Child’ respectively; reciting poetic prose on the themes of hope sacrifice and redemption.
The inclusion of dance adds another layer. Dan Baines, Jemima Brown and Sera Maehera accompany the music in the guise of rebel, leader and healer. They appear and disappear from the narrative, sometimes poignantly and sometimes superfluously, but always beguiling – especially Brown whose presence is quite hypnotic.
But the question remains as to how much this adds to the experience. It is often at odds with the performance, and most guilty of this is the vast video screen that splits the choir down the middle. Unavoidable, it intrudes throughout with images that bear little relation to the story, unless the references are deliberately oblique. Interesting as they are, they distract somewhat. As do the choice of costume for the narrators; a kind of Mad Max battle garb with token Biblical accessory – apocryphal and apocalyptic – the point of which misses its target.
Which is the fundamental flaw. The programme notes explain the intention to bring classical music to the masses. To make it inclusive and, I suppose, immersive. It assumes that the general population regard classical music as ‘dull and stuffy’ and that it is not something most people can relate to. Handel might not have agreed, but he would have approved of the approach. He was a showman himself after all; interested in the drama and not just the music. The multimedia elements are a response to the way the world is now. But while they might draw in a new crowd for this ‘dull and stuffy’ (the conductor’s words, not mine) music, they do little to make us follow the story and therefore capture the passion inherent in the score. Which is disengaging, instead of having the desired effect. “Messiah”, as an oratorio, has no story as such – so is not the easiest to follow. But the audience can wallow in the beauty of the music and let the imagination construct the scenes. This production unfortunately takes that away and replaces it with more confusion.
Reviewed on 6th December 2022
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Craig Fuller
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