I was excited when an old friend got three tickets to English National Opera’s The Messiah at the Coliseum on Friday. Then I saw a review in The Guardian and a nice big picture of the chorus in an assortment of high-street clothing hugging each other during the Hallelujah Chorus. I searched around for a blindfold to put in my handbag. D. had not entirely clocked the fact that this was über-cool Deborah Warner’s production, the first major attempt to stage Handel’s majestic oratorio.
I sensed her excitement mount with the plaintiff notes of the orchestra tuning up. Those notes resolved themselves into a glorious baroque sound and a gauzy curtain lifted on a sea of light. Curiously, this resolved itself into London traffic at night projected on the black marble floor. Then a beautiful grid of suspended golden lilies slowly rose and a scene was assembled: a hotel bed in one sector, a line of chairs at the back (the dole queue?) and some benches Stage Right which I interpreted as church pews. Oh, and a computer console beyond but I didn’t have much of a theory for that. What a ghastly mess. On strolled the chorus, like a crowd of weekend travellers at Paddington Station. Catherine Wynn-Jones, the sublime mezzo soprano dressed as a Building Society clerk sat on the bed, why? Now a little kid ( the future of mankind? search me) runs around, jumping over benches and playing on the computer. Then a maid comes on and strips the bed, extravagantly folding sheets and duvet. (Off you go - now! - back into the wings. Some of us want to concentrate on the chorus.)
There was some choreography too. I actually loved the girl in the blue hoodie expressing her joy at The Annunciation. (The one with her jeans tucked into a pair of tan leather boots and the grey cardi was the angel.) Then again, the idea of the crucifixion was given power by some brutal contact improvisation amongst the symbolic golden props. A tricky one, that. (Our friend Andrew noted that Deborah Warner always has a ladder in it somewhere.)
I don’t mind experimental theatre but this was a fatuous conceit, attempting to make it the ‘outreach’ Messiah using lame 21st century metaphor. By the second interval and an infantile nativity scene (mothers snapping their darlings on camera phones awwww) the seats were mysteriously emptying.
The woman next to me was thinking of getting back to Leicester early but I suggested it would be a shame to miss ‘I know that My Redeemer Liveth’, one of Handel’s most poignant arias. Imagine how I couldn’t look at her when it was delivered from a hospital bed with the soprano getting a blanket bath into the bargain. I have never laughed in the Messiah before. Then the nurses pulled the sheet up over her head and I felt a bit bad. But, really, I could have wept for the whole cast.
D. may have been embarrassed at first but we retrieved George Fredrich Handel from this tragic contextualisation, thanks to the astounding orchestra and the electric singing. Then we tried to ponder the notion of the Sacred and the Profane.. A bucket of champagne did help it all go down.
Images: George Fredrich Handel by Mercier ca 1720 here; The E N O Messiah photo: Tristram Kenton The Guardian; Fra Angelico: The Annunciation 1438-45; Piero della Francesca Nativity c 1470