sat 30/05/2020

Messiah, ENO | reviews, news & interviews

Messiah, ENO

Messiah, ENO

Community spirit at the Coliseum

There are so many ways a dramatic production of Messiah can go wrong it is almost unbearable to think about it. Certainly, there was a palpable buzz of nervousness in the Coliseum about last night’s audience as they took their seats. Did English National Opera really think it could pull it off? Could it avoid the pitfalls into triteness that surely lurk at every corner? How would the chorus manage it? And please God, let it be better than Glyndebourne’s 2007 St Matthew Passion.

How do you go about staging Messiah anyway? It hardly provides a rip-roaring narrative stream, and there’s a danger of foisting a storyline on to it that simply doesn’t want to be there. Conversely, it’s easy enough to compartmentalise the whole thing into a string of unconnected scenes. Director Deborah Warner manages to tread the tightrope pretty well, for the most part. While the words tell us about and comment on the life of Jesus, the actions play out something like a year in the life of an inner-city community: the ups and the downs, the suffering and the joy. And if that sounds a bit like EastEnders, then it’s because on one level it is.

The first section – the birth of Jesus – takes place in the run up to Christmas. Against the backdrop of a bustling city the locals (and some of them really are; ENO ticks all the right boxes by having both children and Westminster residents playing non-singing roles) get on with life. A girl who may or may not be Mary has a baby. A boy who may or may not be Jesus (but probably is) runs around and cheers people up. There’s a rather funny nativity play. Very slowly these pieces begin to come together to form a surprisingly agreeable whole. You are drawn in to the life of the community, but you remain sharply aware of the power of Jennens’s libretto.

At times these different, but concurrent, interpretations offer up a deeper meaning, and it is these occasions when the production is most successful. It’s simply too easy with something as well known as Messiah to wallow in the good tunes and then pop off for a curry. The dramatising of the work – whatever your thoughts on how it’s done – instinctively makes you think afresh about it and, hey, for all of us, that can’t be a bad idea now and again.

It doesn’t always work. For a start there’s that problematic third section. Born in the first bit, died in the second, but what to do in the third? Warner’s vision of a slowly dawning day, with the chorus waking from Perspex benches (coffins?), while a soprano on a drip sings “I know that my Redeemer liveth” before dying and rising again was interesting, but I struggled to connect it to the previous two sections. And Handel and Jennens throw the odd spanner in the works too. How to move the drama convincingly from the tenor aria “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron” to the “Hallelujah” chorus without sounding ridiculous? Conductor Laurence Cumming’s answer was to lighten up the aria and calm down the chorus. John-Mark Ainsley sang the first with slightly disconcerting amiability, before we got some rather subdued hallelujahs. It was certainly different, but I’m not sure it really worked.

Cummings is always interesting to hear; he coaxed a fantastically varied performance from the orchestra, and if a couple of moments were slightly over the top, that was more than forgivable in what was a delightfully lush interpretation. He set his stall out from the start: a weighty and languorous introduction (no double dotting or clipped baroqueness here, thank you!) led to a lovely, sharp yet full-sounding fugue. We’ve got used to fast tempi and breathless Messiahs over the decades, and though Cummings can step on the gas as much as anyone (notably in a terrifically zingy “For He is like a refiner’s fire”), he was in no rush. “He was despised” was so spacious it teetered on the edge of stopping entirely.

The chorus has a hard job of it – it’s not easy keeping those movements together at the best of times. There were moments of unsteadiness and a disappointing lack of bass sound, but overall the ensemble was remarkably effective. Top marks too for the soloists. Sophie Bevan was rich in the soprano arias and Brindley Sherratt was on cracking form. In comparison, John-Mark Ainsley sounded a little underpowered at times, but Catherine Wyn-Rogers gave us a feisty sound in what is a notoriously low alto part.

Praise is also due for the dancers, who were beguilingly sinuous in a number of the arias, and for the imaginative and pleasing staging. No horrortorio, then, and let’s hope that ENO continues to give us productions in this vein. Whatever will they come up with next?

  • Messiah will be performed on December 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 11.
  • Check out what's on in the ENO season
  • Find more information about the Messiah community ensemble at their blogspot.
  • The performance on December 4 will be recorded by BBC Radio 3 for transmission on Christmas Day.

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This staging of Messiah by Warner at the ENO was dismal, ugly and mundane. But I suppose that is the kind of failure that happens when small talents impertinently attempt to interpret Genius. Let's hope she never meddles with such great works again!!

This production of the Messiah was the most unintentionally hilarious thing I have ever seen. Projecting an image of a trussed-up lamb onto a fluttering scrim during "Behold the Lamb of God"? Really? REALLY? Handel is rolling over in his grave. If there is a god out there -- and this performance was enough to turn anyone atheist -- please keep Deborah Warner away from any more great choral works. Thanks.

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