It’s Christmas and the bells on tills are jingling! Deborah Warner’s Messiah is a Christmas card writ large, designed to corner the festive market.
“All we like sheep, have gone astray” says Jennens’ libretto. “Yes!” Warner reiterates, 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 artistic.
It starts promisingly, with a film of a big city, lights twinkling. Individual actors are on stage, isolated despite the busy world around them. Modern interpretations of the story aren’t merely valid, but important. Unfortunately, the ideas don’t develop but taper 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.
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 is then resurrected. Warner’s Messiah, however, evolves like a series of Christmas cards, each set piece 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 it’s impact is woefully dissipated.
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 an act of cynicism on her part but an inability to deal with the deeper emotional and social implications within the work.
Images familiar from Christmas 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 and demean what they depict.
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 Trumpet 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 been raised from the dead?
One of the positive things about this production was the way the ensembles moved on and offstage, seamlessly, in ways oratorio can’t achieve. 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.
Since Christmas is associated with children, having them in abundance in this production will guarantee success and lots of oohs’ and aahs’. 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 Christmas cards weaken the impact of great paintings.
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 enjoy this production for what it is, basic, undemanding and unchallenging, not art and not Handel.