It’s Christmas and the bells on tills are jingling! Deborah Warner’s Messiah at the ENO is a Christmas card writ large, designed to corner the Christmas market. “Are we like sheep?” goes Handel’s libretto. “Yes!” suggests Warner, projecting images of shoppers in a mall behind the music. This production will sell, and sell, because it looks great. But Handel it isn’t, nor is it art, nor does it have much to do with Jesus.
It starts promisingly, with a magnificent film of a big city, lights twinkling. On stage are individual actors, isolated despite the busy world around them. Modern interpretations of the story aren’t merely valid, but are a positively good thing, since humanity is universal, whatever the flavour of religion. important. A lot could have been made of this initial approach. Who was the woman ironing? What happened to the men on the DSS bench? Unfortunately these tantalizing ideas didn't develop but tapered off, dissipated in fussy detail.
At the end, there’s lots of congratulatory hand-shaking, like a parody of a Catholic Mass, but it doesn’t evolve out of what’s gone before, and comes over as an easy solution to end the show on a positive note to send the punters home happy. What does Warner mean by images of regimented community, like pews (or school benches), and the handing out of Bibles? Organized society doesn't necessarily benefit individuals any more than organized religion benefits souls. At the end, everyone may be on stage but it doesn't make them any less alone.
Handel’s Messiah is based on The Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s inherently dramatic. God becomes man to save the world by dying and being resurrected. Warner’s Messiah, however, evolves like a series of Xmas cards, each song cutely illustrated like a number in a musical. This fragments the powerful thrust of the original, where everything’s leading up to a specific goal, so its impact is woefully dissipated.
Warner's style is very busy, with lots of sub plots and diversions to entertain the eye. Here the stage is divided into two sections, actions happening simultaneously. In theory, this is a good device, but here it's used to maximize detail without expanding meaning. Then the floor itself is removed revealing what looks like real turf growing on a board. It's expensive, so why is it there? why is it pushed away? Perhaps the ENO has to support lots of stage hands and actors, which is why the moving of objects and furniture seems to be house style. Artistically, it's less valid. Indeed, it encourages superficiality, since it concentrates attention on props, not on inherent drama.
For Handel, Christmas is no more than a prelude for the Resurrection, But without the Crucifixion, Resurrection is meaningless. Warner’s production is so fixated on Christmas that the Crucifixion is negated. Even the instruments of torture are painted gold, like tacky decorations. Perhaps the real Jesus story might scare away the Christmas crowds, but I suspect it’s not cynicism that plays down the horror of the story, but an inability to deal with the deeper emotional and social implications.
Images familiar from Xmas cards are projected over the stage, and golden baubles descend, obscuring the action, like embossing on a card. Yet the paintings card makers borrow are based on genuine works of art. However well intentioned Xmas cards may be, they’re not art. They're ephemera, often tacky, and demean what they depict. They look good, as long as you don't look too closely or know the original. A bit like this production. At least there were no Santas, though there was a "Christmas Tree" or rather a tree spray painted gold like an ornament left on display long after Christmas has passed.
The closest this production comes to the heart of the drama is when Catherine Wyn-Rogers sings “He was despised”. Significantly, this is one of the few moments when there isn’t a lot of distracting action on stage, and the music at last has a chance to shine through. But Jesus is going through much more than social discomfort. Brindley Sherratt’s lucky, too, that he didn’t have to contend with a trumpeter on stage during “The Trumpets shall sound”. Poor Sophie Bevan has to sing on her back in a hospital bed and “die”. Then magically, she’s "resurrected”. John Mark Ainsley enters, gives her a gift wrapped dressing gown and immediately departs, blowing her a bemused, desultory kiss. Doesn’t it mean anything that she’s just been raised from the dead? Handel thinks it's a miracle. Here it's no big deal.
One of the positive things about this production was the way the ensembles moved on and offstage, seamlessly, in ways oratorio can’t achieve. This maintained a good flow between solo and choral pieces, and alone was justification for staging this work. On the other hand, the singing was curiously uncommitted. I never thought I’d miss conventional choirs, but even ragged ones can sing with more fervour. It was particularly disappointing since this Messiah is the culmination of Sing Hallelujah! an ambitious and laudable project for getting people all over thew country to experience the physical joy of singing. All that enthusiasm, and then this stilted performance by professionals singing nicely, but treating the Hallelujah like any other opera chorus. It works better when it's wild.
Christmas is associated with children, having lots of children in this production will guarantee success. The more ooohs and aaahs the better, and no-one ever criticizes kids. .They were lovely, and the small boy who jumps around the stage throughout certainly has admirable stamina. But using children in this saccharine way demeans them, and the central drama, like Xmas cards weaken the impact of great paintings. Of course children are symbols of innocence, hence baby Jesus, and real kids always get underfoot and clamber everywhere. Here they become props. Someone suggested to me, half jokingly, that maybe the kids might be crucified. Shocking as that might sound, there's a certain logic to it, since that's what happened to Jesus, and all kids grow up to face struggle, as part of life. Theologically and psychologically sound as that might be. it's just not going to happen.
Since Warner’s Messiah is a Christmas treat for undemanding audiences, it’s unrealistic to expect too much. There’s nothing wrong with God-free celebrations, and Christmas these days honours Mammon, not the Christian idea of God. So Warner's Messiah will be a huge hit and bring happiness to many, which is a good thing, to be commended. But it's also Handel-free, and art-free, like a true Xmas card.
A more formal version of this will appear HERE shortly. With photos. Please see my other posts on the Messiah, on Handel, and on stagecraft. Since this performance i've been thinking how The Messiah could be staged well. It does lend itself to staging, because this is the ultimate Ideas Story, and lends itself to being expressed in many ways. It should be possible to do an intelligent staging if the ideas come from within the score itself. The faith Handel depicts is universal, and if faith is universal, it adapts to all circumstances. There's no reason why the Messiah can't be dramatized, if done with respect, for the music and for the ideas behind it. HERE is a short bit on staging the Messiah, and its implications for the theory and practice of stagecraft.