Saturday, 28 November 2009

Messiah, English National Opera, 27 November 2009

The Coliseum, London

Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (contralto)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Brindley Sherratt (bass)
Harry Bradford (treble)

Deborah Warner (director)
Tom Pye (set designs)
Moritz Junge (costumes)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Leo Warner, Lysander Ashton, and Tom Pye (video)
Kim Brandstrup (choreographer)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Laurence Cummings (conductor)

Just when I had begun to wonder whether ENO had gained a certain edge over its Covent Garden neighbour, along came this. Deborah Warner’s staging of Handel’s Messiah does not, as she admits in the programme, entail ‘turning it into an opera’. Apparently, she has introduced ‘a visual element which is a quite different process to dramatising it’. I am not sure what she means by this; more importantly, I am not at all sure what it was that we saw on stage. The ‘narrative thread ... woven clearly through the three parts of the evening’ – does Handel’s work not already possess a narrative thread of some import? – eluded me, though, goodness knows, I tried. What I saw was an extraordinary mixture of pretentious irrelevance and bizarre literalism, united only by their common thread of banality. Much to my astonishment, what remained of the audience seemed to love it.

The first part I found straightforwardly incomprehensible. Opening with some metropolitan video footage – all of the filming was very well presented, though its end remained dubious, to say the least – the first ‘scene’, as I suppose we should call it, appears to show John Mark Ainsley leaving orders of service on some makeshift pews, whilst other people in everyday dress go about their daily business. Somehow having a woman do the ironing and someone else look at a computer screen is held to illuminate ‘Comfort ye ... Ev’ry valley shall be exalted’. Lots of other people in everyday dress – all different, attesting to considerable effort on Moritz Junge’s part, however dubious the end... – come on to mill around for the first chorus. And I must not forget the hyperactive child who runs around for a great deal of the proceedings. Whether he is doing Warner’s bidding or his own thing, I neither know nor care. Doubtless some people, sentimental at the very mention of children and animals, found this winning; I wished I had a revolver to reach for. For some reason, the child collects in the pieces of paper almost as soon as Ainsley has handed them out. Perhaps this signals that we are not going to proceed along the usual track; perhaps it signifies nothing at all. We see a photographed scene from a school nativity play for the nativity itself. From time to time, depictions of Christ and other ‘ordinary’ faces appear on screen. Nothing seems to bear any relation to anything else. I can only assume that these are various facets of the ‘community’ to which the programme makes repeated reference: good for New Labour-style ‘inclusivity’, ‘access’, and other such buzzwords, I suppose.

The second part is worse still. Banal dance routines become more common. (Again, they seem very well delivered by the dancers; it is certainly not their fault.) The opening numbers feature a strangely literalistic, albeit bloodless, representation of scourging and so forth, whilst members of the ‘community’ look on. ‘All we, like sheep,’ displays lots of people scurrying up and down escalators at what appears to be Liverpool Street station. ‘Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron’ appears to show a camp display of conjuring: more ‘community entertainment’ perhaps? After that, the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus simply has people walk around and hug each other, as if it were a particularly lame Home Counties celebration of New Year’s Eve, before all coming together – ‘community’? – at the front of the stage, to face the audience. To have ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ sung from a life-support machine is risible enough, but then slowly to have the sun rise and other people get up from their hospital beds, as we hear of the Resurrection of the dead, is downright offensive in the banality of its ‘response’ to the text: a bizarre form of secular, content-free televangelism. People I had not seen before venture on stage towards the end of the final ‘Amen’ chorus. One resembles the late Bea Arthur; another, I was unsure whether this ‘character’ were male or female, is a Clare Short lookalike.

Is there any good news (let alone Good News)? The singing was better than the staging. Catherine Wyn-Rogers was excellent, even if I missed a deeper contralto sound, such as one used to hear. Sophie Bevan was very good too: singing ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ lying in a hospital bed was, in its way, impressive. Ainsley, however, was underpowered – try Jon Vickers for size here – and his feyness in the aforementioned ‘Thou shalt break them’ was merely embarrassing. Brindley Sherratt made a reasonable job of the bass part, though he could sometimes sound constricted, and struggled with ‘The trumpet shall sound’. (Unfortunately, its middle section was included, as were many of the traditionally ‘optional’ numbers.) Treble Harry Bradford was a most welcome addition, taking on the ‘Nativity’ numbers with musical intelligence and winning purity of voice. All soloists displayed excellent diction. The choral singing was often surprisingly ragged, especially amongst the female voices. Thus what should be the real location of ‘community’ amounted to very little.

Last and, in a way, least was the lamentable conducting of Laurence Cumming. Never have I heard the slow introduction to the Overture sound so lacking in import and, indeed, rhythmically slack. Tempi were either rushed or drawn out almost beyond endurance, with no apparent justification in either sense. The ‘Pastoral Symphony’ sounded unrecognisable, over in less than the twinkling of an eye. To make the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus so underwhelming requires a perverse skill, I suppose, but not one deserving of wider dissemination. Perhaps most infuriating of all was the reduction of what has so often proved to be a fine orchestra to the sound of an especially malnourished ‘period’ band. I could not see how many musicians were in the pit, but they sounded few; what managed to emerge was thin gruel indeed. Devotees of ‘period style on modern instruments’ will doubtless hail this achievement; I cannot understand what the point of using modern instruments would be, if one is intent upon ignoring or suppressing their manifold advantages. Weird kettledrums and short-breathed, out-of-tune brass sounded as if they actually were period instruments. The difficulties experienced by the trumpeter in ‘The trumpet shall sound’ seemed to confirm that beyond reasonable doubt.

Recently, Warner seemed entirely to miss the point of Brecht in her National Theatre production of Mother Courage. The weird rock-star presentation of the anti-heroine was embarrassing enough, but the attempt, magnificently realised by Fiona Shaw, to render her sympathetic was at best misguided. Again, a largely middle-aged, middle- class audience lapped it up. Now Warner seems entirely to have missed the point of Messiah, the clue perhaps lying in the work’s title. Strangely enough, the opening curtain displayed dictionary definitions of the word and a brief etymology; perhaps the director might have taken the trouble to read them, or even, perish the thought, the text and the score. Warner says that she is ‘not someone who would be queuing for the choral society’s annual performance in the local church’. Perhaps if she had shown a little respect for what used to be, and perhaps still is, a true sense of ‘community’, she might not have gone so wildly astray. I know which queue I shall join next time.