In 1741, King George II’s Lord Lieutenant in Ireland invited the illustrious London composer/impresario, George Frideric Handel, to present a series of charity concerts in Dublin. The resulting enterprise proved so successful, that within less than three months, Handel was back at Dublin’s Fishamble Hall armed with an added bonus program in the form of a new oratorio. The music had taken him a scant twenty-four days to write. On April 13, 1742, Messiah opened to an enthusiastic throng. Ladies planning to attend subsequent performances were requested to remove the hoops from their skirts and military officers to forgo the wearing of swords to accommodate the crush of eager ticket holders.
A year later, Handel reprised the popular piece at London’s Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. The English premiere did not go well. Messiah, critics and clergymen thundered, was far too sacred in theme to be staged as a crass money-making venture. Handel retreated, semi-abandoning the work. It would be almost ten years before his great oratorio found a unanimously acceptable London home. With the first performance in 1750 of what would become an annual benevolent concert for orphans during his lifetime, Messiah took its triumphant place in immortality.
Toronto’s inventive musical co-op, Against the Grain Theatre, shakes the dust off the perennial Handel favourite with a new, decidedly untraditional offering rich in originality and surprise.
If the London opera stage proved to be a controversial venue to launch that city’s earliest Georgian Messiah, AtG’s locally rented Leslieville venue, The Opera House, seems every bit as disconcerting by today’s standards at first. A funky indie rock palace seems a less than exalted showcase for one of western music’s most hallowed works. But this very stylish, very downtown TO production is, ironically, more focused on the historic emotional power of Handel’s classic composition than many typically modern concert hall presentations. Given the theatrical punch of this muscular Messiah, the setting, once settled into, begins to feel not so incongruous after all.
Bringing fresh insight to enduring vocal masterworks is what Against the Grain does best and this Messiah, although still very much a Handelian oratorio, part opera, part church music, is even more of a hybrid. Dance, theatre, pantomime, all factor into the startling mix. Taking Charles Jennens’ biblically inspired eighteenth century libretto as a reference point, director Joel Ivany boldly sets off on an expressionistic faith quest, a risky journey that tests both the strength and fragility of Christian belief.
There is essentially no structured story in Messiah, no distinct characters, no identifiable speakers. Old and New Testament scripture is loosely collected into a series of self-contained scenes to form three distinct acts highlighting prophesy and nativity, passion and crucifixion, resurrection and glorification. Music serves text in a pattern of repeated recitatives, arias and choruses but even here the arrangement is varied.
Many of Handel’s oratorios have been successfully presented as fully dramatized productions but Messiah has never undergone a truly smooth move to the stage. To create its uniquely updated production, Against the Grain Theatre has dug deep into the foundation of the work to create a fresh, bold style of Messiah performance. Music, singing, movement and gesture are combined to transport us to a place of spirituality, anguish and ultimately divine grace.
Working in conjunction with Ivany, choreographer Jennifer Nichols has added a sinewy, sensuous layer of physicality, an overarching passion play, part modern dance, part Baroque posture. An actively engaged roster of choristers and soloists assumes an almost endless variety of avatars as implied by the libretto, from the shunned figure of “He who was despised” to the baaah-baaahhhing flock of “All we like sheep”. Singers sing while doing one hand push-ups, lifting scenery, hoisting partners, no small accomplishment for a class of artists not generally renowned for their mastery of action roles. But here an entire cast clearly thrives on the challenge.
Bass Geoffrey Sirett in particular throws himself body and soul into the centre of the action. Shoeless, stripped to the waist, Sirett moves as if propelled by currents of high voltage. His voice has equal power, charged with ecstasy and revelation. Handel’s glorious air, “The trumpet shall sound”, an outpouring of robust coloratura, is sung with great dexterity and authority.
Tenor Isaiah Bell’s youthful athleticism is reflected in his voice, budding and energetic. His sound may be light, but there is ample sturdiness of style and technique to carry him the full course of Messiah’s soundscape.
Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, slightly vocally withheld in her opening moments, quickly engages, singing with expansive emotion and warmth. The smooth, polished patina of her instrument is well-suited to early music and Szabó employs it with compelling sensitivity and nuance.
Fellow soloist Jacqueline Woodley is the quintessential Handelian soprano. With her clear, cloudless sky-blue tone and bright, angelic top notes, Woodley gives a mesmerizing performance of dazzling virtuosity. “How beautiful are the feet” is given stirring voice. The sheer exquisiteness of her “Rejoice greatly” is beyond words.
The fourteen-member chorus under the seasoned guidance of consultant Robert Cooper performs with both strength and refinement. That none of the group had ever sung together prior to assembling five short weeks ago is astonishing. The fine unity of sound and dramatic presence on show gives the entire AtG production the simultaneous solidity and loft so essential to any noteworthy Messiah.
A sprightly chamber ensemble — twelve player string section, plus harpsichord, twinned trumpets and oboes, all accented by timpani — provides superb orchestral accompaniment. Under the direction of AtG music director Christopher Mokrzewski, musicianship is of the highest standard. The collective handling of the overture, the swelling “Sinfonia” is heart stopping. Harmonies are uniformly lush, continuo crisp. Mokrzewski’s conducting is energetic and assured.
AtG’s trailblazing Messiah is a remarkable achievement although minor glitches do graze the surface. Movement can teeter dangerously close to satire. Gesture can be fidgety and distracting. But the uniqueness of the presentation and the degree of courage demonstrated by Against the Grain in undertaking it ultimately trumps minor quibbles.
Director Ivany and company have produced something extraordinary here. This startling, one of a kind Messiah, quite simply, advances musical history. The experience of witnessing it leaping forward in real time is a thrill.