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But if anything, he is even more opposed to staging Messiah: "Handel — unlike Bach — was the greatest opera composer of his era, a man of the theatre. When he wanted to write an opera, he did so, and not even seldom! Messiah is not an opera, and it is not to be staged. Staging doesn't elevate the music; on the contrary, it reduces it to a background role, like film music."

The film director Tony Palmer, whose biopic of Handel, God Rot Tunbridge Wells!, starred Trevor Howard as the ill-tempered protagonist, takes a very different stance. "We live in the age of Richard Dawkins," he points out. "Like him or loathe him, we can't ignore him, or Charles Darwin. In a secular society, these works don't have the same spiritual significance to as many of the audience as they would have in the 18th century. They are nevertheless highly dramatic and tremendously human." In the 21st century, he suggests, our perspective frees us to respond to different angles, whether illuminating, provocative or challenging. Indeed, it's essential that we find new ways to shine light on the works' meaning for our own times. 

"One big problem with Messiah," he adds, "is that Handel wrote it for a small orchestra and only about a dozen voices, including choirboys, but today most people know it dreadfully well as performed by amateur choral societies three hundred strong. Anything that can get us away from those versions has to be doing the piece a favour."

Conductor Laurence Cummings is on the podium at ENO and adds a spirited defence. "The point of oratorio is that it was to be performed during Lent, when the performance of opera was forbidden," he points out. (Messiah's premiere took place on 13 April 1742.) "Therefore they have strong narratives which the audience would visualise for themselves while they listened. Some of Handel's oratorios, such as Saul, even include stage directions. Unlike the St Matthew Passion, Messiah was never intended to be given in churches, and in the Music Hall in Dublin where it was premièred it would have made a very powerful, quasi-theatrical impact."

But the best thing about treating Messiah as an opera, he says, is the six-week rehearsal period. "Normally you have to put Messiah together in one three-hour rehearsal. To be able to give it the attention it deserves is a tremendous luxury — the chorus and soloists are all performing from memory — and every day we're finding new layers of meaning that we've never found before." 

And what would he say to those who deplore the idea of staging a work whose composer did not intend it to be presented this way? "As a harpsichordist and conductor who's interested in historical performance, of course I want to know what strings and bows they used in Handel's day, and so on," he says, "but we will never know precisely what these composers intended because they were writing for audiences whose experiences and expectations were completely different from our own. In a way, the logical conclusion of that argument would be that we shouldn't perform these works at all because the audiences are not the same." 

Messiah is a strong enough work to withstand most treatments, though. And if it causes controversy — perhaps especially if it does — a new stage production will persuade people to attend, talk, argue and engage all over again with a work that has undoubtedly become overfamiliar and tired through performances that are too numerous and often too poor. Shake off the cobwebs, shake up our expectations, and perhaps we will be able to appreciate this all-too-perennial favourite with new ears and, indeed, new eyes.

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