Expectations could hardly have been higher for last night’s first performance of Against the Grain’s new production of Handel’s Messiah. By and large they were met. It’s become quite the thing to stage Handel’s oratorios and, for the most part, that’s fine. They are really operas in disguise and work well when liberated from the concert setting. Messiah is trickier. Rather than a linear narrative there are a series of Biblical texts selected by librettist Charles Jennens to promote a literal and conservative evangelical Christianity. There is no obvious staging solution. One possibility is to invent a narrative and spin the story around it as Claus Guth did at Theater an der Wien in 2009. AtG’s Joel Ivany’s solution is to stage it as a choreographed performance and use movement to bring depth to the words. Here he is aided and abetted by choreographer Jennifer Nichols who has created a movement language tailored to the abilities and limitations of the singers.
We open with the soloists in dinner jackets or gowns and heels behind music stands as in hundreds of Messiahs across the English speaking world and beyond but by the end of Ev’ry Valley tenor soloist Isaiah Bell has stripped off his jacket, tie and cufflinks and bass soloist Geoffrey Sirett gets a similar ritual stripping by members of the chorus soon after though later he briefly loses his shirt too. The ladies merely lose their heels at appropriate points. Having established that this isn’t going to be a music stands production we then get a series of scenes for both soloists and chorus in which a wide range of gesture and movement is tailored to the emotional pitch of each number. There’s a fair amount of something rather like “Sellars semaphore”; especially from the chorus; the girls in rather fetching pale tunic dresses and the guys in shirt and trousers. The soloists get movement matched to their abilities. Sirett is at once athletic and angular, often rather recalling John Cleese. Bell is more frenetic and emotional. Soprano Jacqueline Woodley trips lightly through a series of figures and alto Krisztina Szabó is rather more stately.
There are a couple of highlights that deserve special mention. All we like sheep was the comic relief moment of the evening with chorus and soloist (Sirett) shuffling sideways across the stage with baaritone Sirett interjecting sheep noises before shuffling off across the front of the orchestra, seizing the baton and sheepily conducting a few baas. It sounds daft, and it was a bit, but it was very funny and didn’t seem out of place. Then there was the Hallelujah chorus where the audience was invited to join in. They even handed out vocal scores of the number. This would have worked better if there had been light enough to read them! Still there was a chorus tenor about ten feet away from me so i cued off him. This experiment might have been quite awkward but there so many singers and other trained musicians in the audience that it really worked and for a few minutes we had that traditional Huddersfield Choral Society sound to contrast the lighter textures around it produced by the fourteen strong chorus.
The singing was of the highest quality. The quartet of soloists, on paper, looked the equal of the TSO and Tafelmusik’s competing offerings (and both Emma Kirkby and John Relyea are in town) and they didn’t disappoint. I’d single out Geoffrey Sirett’s powerful baritone. He sang brilliantly often while going through rather extreme physical contortions. I do not know how one sings Handel while doing a push up. The others were also very good especially once they got going in the rather cold space. And yea! For the first time (for AtG) Topher Mokrzewski had a proper orchestra to conduct. So, in two years we’ve gone from an upright piano to piano quintet to an eighteen piece band with trumpets and timpani. It sounded great and Topher conducted with a suitable combination of precision, delicacy and passion. All in all this show was very well worth braving the -20 windchill and snow drifts for.
There’s one more performance tonight at The Opera House at 735 Queen Street East at 8pm but unfortunately, or not, it’s sold out. There is a gallery of images here.
Next up for this remarkable young company is Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande which plays June 19th to June 25th 2014 at the Max Tanenbaum Courtyard Gardens, 227 Front Street East. Tickets are available here.