Embodying the role of a spiritually disoriented oil patch worker, Dene actor Nathan Loitz strides into the bush north of Edmonton wearing a pair of cherished deerskin moccasins scrupulously protected by rubber overshoes. Swinging a heavy axe, he deftly splits logs for a comforting campfire. A black-robed figure awakens and draws near, an ancestral presence played by Cree-Métis baritone Jonathon Adams, guardian of land and water. The two join hands. A monstrous petrochemical plant looms in the distance, waste gas flares hissing. Adams sings.
But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire.
In an open field surrounded by peaceful farmland southeast of Ottawa, soloist Miriam Khalil stands amid the lofty ruins of a spectacular 200-year old pre-Confederation church gazing at a handful of family snapshots from another time and place. Touching the treasured silver cross hanging around her neck, she looks up, raising her voice to the brave blue late autumn sky. Lines of hopeful New Testament text ring out in Arabic, a remembered sacred Orthodox chant from her Damascus childhood guiding her anthem heavenwards.
If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?
Bookended by baritone and soprano, filmed on location across the country, the dozen-odd inexpressibly emotional arias and chorales that form the heart of Against the Grain Theatre’s latest online offering tell a momentous tale. Co-produced by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Messiah/Complex speaks across the vastness and diversity of an immense nation, a sprawling statement of identity and faith, kinship and belief gloriously framed by a dazzling, uniquely reimagined video presentation of George Frideric Handel’s soaring testament to shared human values and spiritual renewal.
Guided by a tangible sense of inclusiveness, AtG artistic director Joel Ivany and Banff Centre Director of Indigenous Arts Reneltta Arluk provide their far flung cast with a broad conceptual canvas, allowing the fine details of performance and scena to emerge unencumbered. Individual artists are very much in control here, singing in their own heritage languages, interacting in their own environments, reflecting their own personal life perspectives.
Soloing in Southern Tutchone, fine alto-toned Yukon folk-artist Diyet softly smiles as she breathes in the towering wonder of the Kluane, investing her aria, Utʼawkwadįchʼe yesį chʼe yan nań käy (O thou that tellest good tidings), with great strength and humility.
In Iqaluit, Nunavut, singer-songwriter Looee Arreak trains her classically-focused soprano on a moving Inuktitut and English rendition of He shall feed his flock, her face shimmering with grace lit by the faint, low-angled Northern sun.
In rocky, salt-sprayed Petty Harbour, Newfoundland & Labrador, Deantha Edmunds gifts this truly transcontinental Messiah with a magical, windblown How beautiful are the feet sung in Inuttitut, fellow soprano Leela Gilday later contributing a powerfully redemptive corollary from Yellowknife, Senewetsıne, godı́ ǫt’e bek’eoreshǫ (I know that my Redeemer liveth) sensitively translated into Dene.
From fade up to closing credits, all who appear are remarkable, Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists alike, all extraordinary in their radiant command of text and setting, true Handelians regardless of locale, hinterland or downtown core. Boldly confronted, even frenetic urban environments provide rich opportunities for self-affirmation.
Filmed in Vancouver’s LGBTQ2S rainbow district, tenor Spencer Britten contributes a deliciously sly Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, wicked black stilettos and stylish concert garb unveiled, footwear and apparel an emphatic statement of character, as is the case in so many other emblematic narratives so vividly related here.
Elle fut méprisée (She was despised) laments mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb in a passionate realignment of a heartfelt verse from the Book of Isaiah, singing from a gritty Montreal underpass, her thoughts focused on a precious elder.
Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do people imagine a vain thing?, storms fellow mezzo Catherine Daniel, encircled by Toronto’s riotous Grafitti Alley.
The trumpet shall sound, announces baritone Elliot Madore, lacing up his Bauers for something of a victory lap at Weston Lions Arena, his father watching from the stands, coffee in hand, junior league triumphs celebrated.
On a university campus in Charlottetown. In a cathedral in Moncton. A square on Toronto’s King Street West. A church in central Halifax. The choristers of UPEI Singers, Le Chœur Louisbourg, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Halifax Camerata Singers add their voices to a truly national upswelling of spirit and inspiration.
An exhilarating Toronto Symphony Orchestra downsized to responsible public health approved proportions partners all performers with both superb warmth and brilliance, musicians assembled on stage at Koerner Hall safely socially distanced by a series of surprisingly unobtrusive plexiglass dividers. Resident Canadian Opera Company music director Johannes Debus conducts.
HD-recorded coast to coast to coast by a team of skilled professional videographers and audio engineers, lovingly packaged with a splendid sense of cinematic rhythm and montage by editor Stephen Bell, Messiah/Complex simultaneously stirs the soul and lifts the heart. A powerful transformative experience. A Messiah for 2020.
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Messiah/Complex is available on YouTube until January 7, 2021. Registration free of charge via TSO.ca
Note: Due to popular demand, Messiah/Complex will continue to stream online until January 31st.