Monday, 30 November 2009

Fantasy Messiah staging

Why shouldn't Handel's Messiah be fully staged? If ever there was a subject with dramatic potential, this is it. A living faith needs to live, constantly created anew.

Messiah is certainly not "opera" in the usual sense because, fundamentally, it's not "entertainment". Three hundred years of performance tradition pigeonhole it into a narrow niche: Protestant England at song. Yet think of the story it tells, as if you'd never heard it before. It's shocking, cosmic, "terrible" in the way Blake used the word "terrible", something too frightening to fully take in, but compelling and awe-inspiring.

Staging Messiah is also a good exercise in theoretical and practical stagecraft. It means considering the hows and whys of staging opera, in more general terms. For me, good staging comes from within the work being presented, growing outwards, not imposed from without. A good director once told me that you have to "unthink" everything you assume you know, so meaning comes through direct and pure. Since all of us, including devout atheists, carry baggage about Christian images, it's probably a good idea, to wipe clean completely of "social religion". These aren't actually relevant to the real Jesus story, and indeed are sometimes the downside of faith, and getting away from them is difficult. But it's worth trying.

Listen to that music! Handel is practically incandescent with ecstasy, charged with almost electric energy. And that text, darkness, fear, agony, suddenly blitzed away. Right from the beginning, it's about "shaking" the earth. Accounts of nuclear explosions refer to blinding light, just as religious texts do, and even some accounts of near death experience. This light is unnatural because it comes from nowhere in "normal" nature. Of course that doesn't mean depicting the Bomb, so no facile literal images needed. But the Bible does deal with Armageddon, and if we're not careful, it just might happen. Strobe lighting would have that impact, but cause convulsions in the audience, physically and psychologically. Not sensible.

It would be fascinating to work out a staged Messiah, as the real story isn't "easy". Real vision would take courage. On top of the usual hordes who can miraculously pass judgement at what they haven't seen, there'd also be backlash from "social religion", which isn't the same as spiritual belief. So perhaps no-one will dare do a truly original Messiah staging. Which is a tragedy, as the message in the story is so so strong and so relevant. But I do believe it can, and should, be done.

photo credit : Josh Summers

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