Let’s begin with the musical side, as that is what left the strongest positive impression on me. AtG’s music director Topher Mokrzewski finally had a proper orchestra to work with, including a harpsichord (Jenna Douglas, who played almost continuously), twelve strings (Boris Kupesic was Concertmaster) and two oboe, two trumpets and a timpanist. He conducted them with energy and good humour, and the band did gel and perform well overall and was the reliable lifeblood of the production.
Among the soloists, Geoffrey Sirett was very good (as it’s becoming customary–see this): the even baritone colour and reliable technique come with acting talent and readiness to risk. Tenor Isaiah Bell also had both in abundance, a pretty, seemingly effortlessly produced voice and willingness to invest himself wholly into the character. Jacqueline Woodley, usually a fearless performer, was unusually tentative and gentle here, both vocally and dramatically. Usually my favourite voice, mezzo (Krisztina Szabo) appeared ill-at-ease a lot of the time. Perhaps the role was too low at times? The character sang by Szabo also came out as least belonging to the proceedings. Maybe the women among the four soloists were still trying to figure out what their role in the production was? If so, I don’t blame them. The work that is obsessed by the coming of the Son will naturally have women as sidekicks.
All this, and many other issues around The Messiah, could have been addressed, questioned, highlighted? by the staging itself. But no such luck. This staging appeared surprisingly devoid of ideas. (I hate writing this about an AtG production!) Devoid of a concept — any concept. Director Joel Ivany worked with choreographer Jennifer Nichols on creating a sort of a neutral, abstract movement for each of the singers that is endlessly pliable when it comes to meaning. In the course of the oratorio, the male singers strip down to their dress shirts and trousers. Why? Is this something about personal liberation? Find a monotheistic religion and you will be liberated (if a dude)? The coming of the Redeemer will… release men from the shackles of…cuff-links and shoes? The women remained in their identical prom gowns. One of them took the shoes off at some point. Why? No idea.
Ivany decided not to attempt working on some sort of a narrative or a statement with this staging. Apart from the rare moment of the comedic-critical reading of the text (“All we like sheep have gone astray” was the segment that was actually directed, and no wonder the audience loved it), The Messiah was taken at its face value. “We did not want to be disrespectful in our treatment of this sacred text”, says Ivany in the director’s notes. Why on earth not? Are opera and theatre extensions of evangelical proselytizing? The sacred text to whom? I am not religious and am most decidedly NOT waiting for the male offspring of the God to come (again) and redeem my sins. I am fairly confident most of the audience there were not in wait for the Son either. Why not engage with the text, see what it means (and how and whether it can mean) anything today? You know, the thing that the AtG usually does?
This way, we were left to observe a slightly cult-like, slightly creepy group of characters worship whoever stood in for the Messiah in any given segment (sometimes the tenor, sometimes the baritone, in various states of undress, often doing a series of yoga-like postures). The characters sung by the chorus and the soloists were never enough cultish and never enough creepy for the piece to turn into any sort of critical reading of the cult mindset; the sincerity would always prevail, and so we as the audience were invited to worship along.
Which brings us back to the traditional renditions of The Messiah, the antidote to which this production was supposed to be. Whereas the “traditional” and singalong performances of the work are losing religious connotations and turning into a communal ritual in many anglophone countries–with three generations within the family coming together to celebrate the ending of the year and sing the glorious melodies while not taking the words about the coming of the Lord very seriously–this production strangely reversed this path towards secularization and re-established The Messiah as a thoroughly religious work which should be taken on its own terms.
This non-traditional take on the Messiah turned out to be the most traditional of all.
See if you agree with my opinion: the second performance is tonight at The Opera House on Queen E.