In August 1741, George Frideric Handel, shaken and disillusioned by London’s waning interest in Italian opera, an epic enterprise that had obsessed him for over 30 years, bravely turned his back on the past. Friend and collaborator, Charles Jennens, the intellectually restless, Oxford-educated squire, author of the composer’s landmark oratorio Saul, had corresponded with him for months, urging him to undertake a provocative new project. Messiah, a passionate defence of Biblical prophesy plucked more or less verbatim from the Old Testament was to be Jennens’ direct frontal attack on deism, a trendy philosophy of the times rooted in 18th century atheism. Handel took up the cause, locked his door and set to work. 24 days later he emerged, meticulously detailed 259-page score in hand. Many, Handel among them, believed the piece was divinely inspired. SDG — Soli Deo Gloria (“To God alone the glory”) — he exalted on the final page of his manuscript. What had begun as essentially an agenda-driven tract had somehow morphed into something infinitely deeper and uplifting, a work of immense spiritual and moral power, timeless and inspirational.
Voicing the past, both recent and Baroque, dynamic indie collective Against the Grain Theatre rocks Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre Theatre with a fresh, restyled revival of its 2013 dance-drama Messiah, graced with humanity, vital and indomitable.
Shepherding his gifted young cast of singer actors, 4 principals — tenor, bass, alto, and soprano — plus compact chorus, director Joel Ivany gives palpable dramatic form to Spirit. Suffering and joy, rapture, mysticism, even broad comedy at times, all intertwine in a tempestuous journey to the centre of Christian belief. Faith is given expressive physical dimensions.
Resolutely axiomatic, Jennens’ libretto is more sermon than coherent story. From a purely textual point of view, Messiah, cobbled together from numerous Biblical sources, primarily Isaiah and Psalms with occasional excursions into Luke and Matthew, is fundamentally a collection of holy vignettes. Part I deals with the Nativity, the fulfillment of God’s prophetic promise to found an earthly kingdom. Part II spotlights the Passion, Jesus’s suffering and, ultimately, His wiping away of mortal sin. Part III celebrates the Resurrection and the triumphant guarantee of everlasting life in Christ.
Surprisingly, despite its eponymous title, Handel’s majestic masterpiece was initially associated, not with Christmas, but Easter. The cross looms large over the piece, a reality clearly not lost on Ivany. Or lighting designer Jason Hand. Dazzling crystalline spots arc through shrouds of theatrical fog like shafts of heavenly redemption, while omni-present performer Joshua Wales, assuming a succession of Christ-like poses, brings continuity and flow to an otherwise traditionally fragmented work. The reimagined figural presence of the Messiah made tangible is, quite simply, transformative, stark, meaningful, laden with revelation. The repeated use of choristers as both activators and mute bystanders further boosts the dramatic impact. Humankind is amply exemplified.
The collective emphasis, although unquestionably present in 2013, feels stronger, more emphatic in AtG’s current iteration. This Messiah is overtly tribal, one that underscores the communal experience for performers and audience alike, a shared catharsis that points to a vastly broader context than mere Christian observance.
Choreographer Jennifer Nichols’ sensuous fusion of classical ballet and modern dance, vibrantly accented with fluid gesture, lends an air of engaging intensity to Ivany’s universalized faith quest. Highly syncopated when applied to chorus, more idiosyncratic in the case of soloists, singers fling Handel’s music into the air, tracing its exquisitely lush lines of melody with hands and bodies, oscillating, vibrating, acute emotion unleashed. The effect is as urgent as it is graphic although, it must be confessed, there are times when stillness would arguably serve an equally eloquent, less distracting purpose. That said, there is a welcome sense of process much in evidence here. Nichols work, startling and raw in AtG’s first staging of Messiah, two years later has blossomed into an assured, polished style.
As tenor soloist, Owen McCausland strikes an intensely sympathetic pose on stage, igniting the evening’s proceedings with a particularly soulful rendition of Handel’s heartfelt plaint, Comfort ye, deftly transitioning to the exquisitely joyful Ev’ry valley shall be exalted. There is a subtle honesty residing in this clear, uncomplicated voice. Dramatically, McCausland is very much an Everyman, a role he inhabits with abundant understanding. Cast as the battered innocent in Ivany’s vivid visualization of He was despised, McCausland is heartrending.
Striking a stern, markedly Old Testament pose in Parts I and II of the production, bass Stephen Hegedus holds us spellbound. Gifted with a deliciously rich, expansive instrument, the sly vocalist and actor clearly revels in confounding expectation. Stripping off convention as eagerly as shirt and trousers, Hegedus, clad in an outrageously tasteless spandex gold unitard, delivers an uproariously satirical The trumpet shall sound, in utterly straight-faced, Old Testament prophet-meets-superhero style. Handel’s mighty, ringing air will never be the same.
Mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig cast as alto soloist delivers an exceptionally powerful performance of great beauty. Shining and radiant in her mid to top range, tender and touching in her lower reach, the versatile opera and concert collaborator adds captivating sparkle to Handel’s engaging tonal landscape. Coloratura in the composer’s trippingly cheerful O thou tellest good tidings to Zion is charmingly rendered.
Toronto’s own, soprano Miriam Khalil sings with gorgeous elegance and poise, a velvet sheen to her voice, supple and burnished. Animated, stylish, enchanting, the frequent AtG principal artist lends bold, bright colour to this reverberant Messiah, turning in an irresistible Rejoice greatly, vibrant and glowing.
The chorus, 16-voices strong, sings with unfailing energy and heart, summoning a depth of sound that belies its modest size. A touch ragged in full engagement, a little rough texturally, the irrepressible ensemble, comprised of more than a few returning members from Messiah 2013, sings with such energy, such spontaneity, such unwavering commitment that any critical notes are all but forgotten.
An appealing 18-player chamber orchestra — violins, violas, cello, bass, oboes, trumpets, timpani and harpsichord — under the sensitive direction of Topher Mokrzewski superbly traces the full sweep of Handel’s glorious score.
Messiah, for all its transcendent religious grandeur, is fundamentally an intensely humane piece rooted in optimism. The emotional and spiritual resonance, forever eternal, has never felt more compelling given the brutal reality of 2015. Against the Grain Theatre reminds us that light inevitably banishes darkness. Evil is never an enduring match for compassion and goodness.