WHEN I eventually got a CD player, the first disc had to be Handel’s Messiah. But which of the dozens to choose: Huddersfield Choral Society’s full-blown rendition, one with archival instruments, Mozart’s arrangement. . . ? In the end it hardly mattered. Every version sampled overawed me. The same goes for Bristol Old Vic’s dramatisation of this beloved oratorio, which is being screened nationwide for one night only on Wednesday 28 March (Cert. PG). As it’s being performed, each number instantly became my very favourite . . . until the next. It prompts the question whether a staged version is really necessary. Doesn’t the music transcend any attempts to enact that which is being sung?
And yet it should not really surprise us that Messiah has become a stage show in recent years. Oratorios in Handel’s day were often theatrical performances rather than in church. Its 1742 première was at the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin, and not without notoriety. It featured the disgraced actress Susannah Cibber, the sister of the composer Thomas Arne, who had divorced her abusive husband. When eventually sung in London, it was again at a theatre. In recent times, the English National Opera performed the oratorio in contemporary costume at the Coliseum, London. The emphasis was on how we would crucify Jesus all over again.
Tom Morris, the winner of a Broadway Tony award for War Horse, likewise gives the Bristol production a modern setting. This time, it’s a community in grief. In that sense, the Advent and nativity pieces are but preludes to what Handel intended to be a proclamation about Easter. This production succeeds in honouring that aim, leaving an abiding memory not of the Christ-child, nor of the itinerant preacher, but of Jesus mostly lying on a slab. This is done at the risk of contradicting the accompanying music, as it becomes increasingly joyful and triumphant: quite a paradox, the music signalling hope in the midst of despair.
There is no pretence that this is a conventional opera or musical where the orchestra resides in the pit. Musicians and actors/singers inhabit the same stage. The trumpet, when it sounds, is located in the circle — a device, I suspect, that evokes more of a theatrical frisson than cinema can emulate.
As with all such shows streamed to picture houses, the cinema audience does have the advantage of close-ups. It will be interesting to discover whether viewers at next Wednesday’s event stand for the “Hallelujah Chorus” or applaud at the end. Even so, it is unlikely that people will leave their seats unmoved by what they see or, more to the point, hear. The producer, Alison Hargreaves, has already said that people who have seen the stage version tell her that they have discovered a new layer to the human struggle behind Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
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