The Messiah / Against the Grain Theatre

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.

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12 thoughts on “The Messiah / Against the Grain Theatre

  1. I’m going to disagree with you on a pretty fundamental point. I don’t think Messiah is just a straight forward narrative about The Son of Man, Redemption et al. It’s a propaganda piece for a very backward looking kind of literal Evangelicalism. For me, the key texts are lines like “and in my flesh shall I see God” and “raised incorruptible”. Here’s the literal Biblical text which has been airbrushed into a kind of metaphorical Deism ever since Handel/Jennens’ time. The “traditional” approach to Messiah with it’s Anglican orthodox formality (let’s call it the Huddersfield Choral Society mentality) glosses over that and does turn the piece into a kind of oratorio version of The Nutcracker. I thought AtG’s version started to challenge that. The shedding of the trappings of formality, the tortured body language and so on. I think it could have gone a lot farther and I might even have expected that but at least it seemed to take the text on it’s own terms which it has become almost impolite to do.

    1. You’re saying that by revealing (albeit non-questioning-ly) the work’s evangelical roots (which the Anglican tradition suffocated with its softness), the AtG was actually radically re-reading the work?

      If that was the idea, I don’t think that it worked. Or rather: I don’t think those roots were exposed clearly and critically enough for the viewer to go, Oh I see… There was no room for critical consciousness. People just went along with the show. You can tell the audience that is questioned from the one that just had a jolly good time.

      1. Here in large measure I agree with you. I think the idea could have been taken much further and wasn’t, at least in part because of a certain timidness wrt to a “sacred text”.

        I’m not sure how much one can read into audience reaction. I think it rather depends on the audience and this one was pretty mixed.

        1. True. Also to keep in mind: not all of us come from the Protestant background and most of us won’t have any inkling of the evangelist v Anglican pedigrees and history around this piece. We’ll just come to see it as a piece of theatre, and it will work or not as a piece of theatre. What you and I are talking about here will not necessarily be of interest to most Messiah newbies.

          (Nice to see you drop by, btw. Been meaning to reread your post on the Guth Messiah. I wish I could see his Lazarus, which he set at an airport lounge where people connect flights. The dead have the boarding passes…)

          1. The issue of how much one can assume the audience knows isn’t unique to Messiah. Directors make assumptions all the time (probably mostly invalid) about the extent of the audience’s knowledge of the work and its performance history.

            I didn’t come to my interpretation of Messiah because of my Anglican background (I don’t think anyway). I was disturbed by the choice of text; the emphasis on “flesh” and “corruption”. There are so many other texts Jennens could have chosen and others have chosen in the past to convey the basic Christ story. His choices are weird.

            1. I wonder how much the original audience in Handel’s time cared for the religious messaging of the work. Some of his other oratorios are so insanely sensuous, beautiful, extravagant, fun, not very much in service of the words, and definitely not conducive to religious contemplation, that I wonder if everybody was in on the joke even then. Especially then. Maybe the Victorians were to ones who turned the Messiah into a religious work. (I’m sure there are books and articles on this, none of which I have read.)

              Some of the choral segments of the Messiah are so quintessentially danceable that I can’t see any other impulse breaking through.

            2. I think for English (and Irish) Protestants of Handel’s day the issue of how literally scripture was to be interpreted was an important one. It had been a debate that had lasted 200 years (and was to last another 150), had provoked numerous rebellions, a civil war and the execution of a king. No doubt there were those who were just there for the tunes but I don’t think you can write the others off.

            3. I don’t dispute that. I just doubt that people went to Handel in search of unequivocal answers to questions of religious dogma. Or even for worship exclusively. But who knows. Maybe there were people who understood “He trusted in God” for example as an exercise in piety.

            4. No I don’t think they did go for either worship or a theology lecture but I think they would have been well aware of what Jennens was driving at and who he was attacking. Just as one might not go to the opera today for political education but if there’s an unmistakeably anti-capitalist message most of the audience will get it (and some will be angry and uncomfortable).

  2. A couple of things I stumbled upon… “Even after Messiah was becoming well-known, as great a religious figure as John Newton, composer of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” preached often against the “secular” performances of this biblical oratorio.” http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1701-1800/messiah-and-george-frideric-handel-11630237.html

    This one argues the work was an attempt at popularizing the Scriptures, be a sort of a Christian Worship 101. http://www.anotherthink.com/contents/movies_books_music/20051218_handels_messiah_a_brief_history.html

    This one is good on Jennens’s reasoning http://gfhandel.org/messiah.htm

  3. As always interesting (both of you). I think you’re more or less on the right track in reading AtG as counter-revolutionary, in the sense that they do not seek to make the work secular by denying/negating the spiritual element in Messiah. I think i lean more towards John’s view, in thinking that one can go to Messiah for something religious or spiritual without being doctrinal about it. Was Handel the Cecille B DeMille of his day (popularizing important religious themes)? Perhaps, even if the audience was knowledgable & literate in ways utterly unlike our own.

    That being said –that we agree about Ivany’s objectives– i think we read the performances very differently. Of the soloists I was most impressed by Jacqueline Woodley. Indeed, it’s a good thing i didn’t run into her because i would have started blubbering like a baby. She was like an animated mannerist figure, her movement perfection and her singing the best soprano i think i’ve ever heard in Messiah even if she’d stood stock still. And if you understand the challenges posed by Nichols choreography, her singing was by far, by far, the most effortless and easy of the quartet. Szabo too is something more than how you understand her. Szabo embraces and channels all the darkness of her “role”, the brave and heart-breaking witness of the horrors of “He was despised”.. Why are we seeing her in such opposite ways? I suspect because of the doctrinal divide separating us, with all that might imply as far as gender roles. No i don’t want all women consigned back to the kitchen, i am possibly as much of a feminist as you are; but i suppose i see these as portrayals. And maybe that’s why, hahaha the men are both good, but comparatively light-weight as far as the spiritual elements are concerned because THEY seem captive of gender roles, particularly Sirett’s macho posing. Just as women must be free to be anything they want..? ditto for men. I lift weights but i reserve the right to have a soft gentle side too. Liberation frees all of us. I will side-step the religious question speaking as someone who’s very moved by this text regardless of how it overlaps or contradicts my faith.

    Bottom line? there’s much to admire here, and perhaps even more to decode..! I didn’t know where to look half the time, admittedly distracted often by Mokrzewski’s conducting, the chorus & the orchestral players, all of which was fun to watch.

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