The Messiah’s Latest Coming

English National Opera has adopted a new family favourite just in time for Christmas. Not Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel or Rossini’s La Cenerentola, but a story some in the 21st century regard as a different kind of fairytale: Handel’s Messiah (until 11 December). And it will be fully staged, with the brilliant and controversial Deborah Warner as director. 

It’s not that there aren’t fine precedents for staging oratorios, passions and cantatas as if they were operas. Jonathan Miller was the pioneer, creating his sober and meditative production of Bach’s St Matthew Passion back in 1994 — it’s still enjoying hit revivals. And nearly ten years ago, Warner herself staged Bach’s St John Passion for ENO, to tremendous acclaim. The critic Edward Seckerson called the production “quietly devastating”, adding: “It is a religious experience in the broadest sense. We cannot walk away from it. We are all involved.” But with a work as familiar as Messiah, will Warner be able to repeat that achievement? 

Glyndebourne’s transformation of the St Matthew Passion into a stage version directed by Katie Mitchell in 2007, was altogether less happy. “The St Matthew Passion is a failure,” wrote the Independent on Sunday‘s Anna Picard, “for the extra-musical scenario Mitchell has devised…compromises the performance of the work itself, which in turn precludes any meaningful examination of the crime [her] scenario depicts…” 

More extrovert and obviously dramatic than the meditative Bach, Messiah should require nobody to impose a scenario. Nevertheless, Glyndebourne’s experience highlighted the obvious: these great choral works are not operas. They certainly contain narrative, but the qualities that one expects in a successful opera — strong characters, interpersonal conflict and so on — are not the priority. The operatic repertoire is not lacking in fine material; why present as an opera a work that isn’t one? Is it really a valid way to persuade contemporary audiences to take a fresh look at a familiar masterpiece? 

The issue raises both passions and hackles. András Schiff, the Hungarian pianist and conductor whose Bach performances have become a legend in his lifetime, is intensely opposed to the whole concept.

“I think these stagings are outrageous,” he declares. “These masterworks are very dramatic and they do tell a ‘story’, but the composer achieves this by musical means, with great subtlety. There are no visual or theatrical elements. For example, in the Judas aria in the St Matthew Passion, the rapid demisemiquaver runs of the solo violin perfectly depict the 30 silver coins that he is throwing into the temple. This is masterly and much more effective than any visual representation would be. I feel that staging takes away attention from the music, and the music is just too great.”

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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