It’s a rare and valuable experience when a performance makes one reconsider a perhaps overly familiar work. That’s the effect that Claus Guth’s 2009 staging of Handel’s Messiah had on me. I don’t think that there is any piece I’m more familiar with than Messiah. I feel like I’ve known it all my life. I’ve sung it. I own a vocal score (rare indeed for me!). I couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard it. And yet here it came up entirely fresh and had me thinking about it in completely new ways.
On the face of it staging Messiah is a real odd idea. Of all Handel’s oratorios it’s the least dramatic in that there is no coherent narrative. So, while the staging possibilities of Hercules or Theodora or Alexander’s Feast are obvious, Messiah would seem a poor candidate for theatrical treatment. Guth gets round this by, in a sense, not staging Messiah. The ‘play’ that we see on stage is not in any sense a representation of the Messiah narrative, such as that is. It’s an entirely new story that is acted out with the music standing as a sort of commentary on the action. It’s not easy to describe but it works.
We open on a scene with a distraught priest (Richard Croft) roaming a corridor. “Comfort ye” is powerful, somewhat strident, perhaps even angry. It’s a harbinger of how our usual emotional responses to the music will be challenged. This leads us to a funeral. The coffin is centre stage. Florian Boesch sings “Thus saith the Lord” and opens the coffin. We learn that the dead man cut his wrists. Bejun Mehta sings “Who shall abide” and closes the coffin. The women present are obviously distraught. What is happening here?
Most of the rest of the drama is played out as a flashback in which we learn of the forces that drove the dead man to suicide. We see the relationships between him and the two other men; his brothers one presumes, and the two women; one his wife. We see his, on the face of it, prosperous and successful life unwinding. This is played out by the singers, a dancer (Paul Lorenger) playing the dead man and a young girl (Nadia Kichler) who appears to comment on the action in sign language. There’s also plenty of work for the chorus who get a lot of “Sellars semaphore” like action. There is a great deal of dramatic ambiguity but emotionally it’s very straightforward. The whole drama is played out on a rotating set that turns itself into rooms and corridors of a vaguely institutional kind with many doors and few windows.
Eventually we are back at the funeral parlour. Here we get one of the most tradition bending moments. The seated chorus sings the Hallelujah chorus as the coffin is wheeled into the room. It’s curiously lyrical and entirely untriumphal. It’s a million miles away from the Huddersfield Choral Society letting rip. The final part of the drama deals with the aftermath and runs the gamut of grieving from anger through regret to resignation.
Musically this is really pretty good. The Arnold Schoenberg Choir is quite outstanding throughout. I’m not a fan of using a counter tenor in the alto role but dramatically it makes sense here and Bejun Mehta is a terrific singer. The repeat of “He was despised” is particularly fine. Florian Boesch and Richard Croft are excellent too, injecting more emotion into the music than one would expect in a concert performance. The soprano roles are taken by Susan Gritton and Cornelia Horak. Gritton gets most of the big numbers. “I know that my Redeemer liveth” is really lovely. Horak does just fine with the relatively little she gets to do. “And suddenly there was with the angel” is given to boy soprano Martin Pöllmann which makes dramatic sense but isn’t the most musically felicitous part of the show. Jean-Christophe Spinosi is in the pit with the Ensemble Matheus and they play in a suitably idiomatic, period style way. Once again, not overblown in the traditional manner.
Video direction is by Hannes Rossacher. I think in a more conventional production it would drive me crazy. It’s very hard to figure out what angle he is filming much of the time but with the ambiguous rotating set it sort of works. Occasionally he uses a very unusual but effective camera angle like an overhead shot as the coffin is brought in during the Hallelujah chorus. He’s also not too fixated on close ups though there are times when I would have appreciated a wider view. The picture on Blu-ray is excellent and both the DTS-HD MA and PCM stereo soundtracks are more than adequate. Subtitles are English, German, French and Spanish. There are no extras and documentation is limited to a track listing and a short essay.