Opera + Classical Music Features

Interview: Laurence Cummings on staging ‘Messiah’

Laurence Cummings

Laurence Cummings

‘An Oratorio is either an Act of RELIGION or it is not. If it is, I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it in, or a company of PLAYERS fit ministers of God’s word.’

Thus wrote ‘Philatheles’ in the Spectator concerning the performance of Messiah at Covent Garden in 1743.

The same reservations might well be expressed at the notion of performing the work on the Coliseum stage, but Laurence Cummings, who conducts, will have none of it. “I’m very excited about the whole thing, and if the dress rehearsal is anything to go by, so will audiences be it’s a very beautiful production, and even those who might be a bit sceptical the ‘How-can-you-stage-Messiah’ types, I hope will be convinced.”

Cummings is well known for what a colleague called ‘his can-do, enabling style’ so it was hardly surprising that he has collaborated with Deborah Warner on the event “It’s a very unforced approach, not proselytising at all, drawing on the incredible inherent drama that is in the music maybe the question ought to be, ‘How can you not stage Messiah?”

He describes the work as ‘a journey from darkness into light,’ and the staging certainly supports this, with its monochrome evocation of dreary everyday life at the start and bursting into glorious brightness at the end. As he points out, “It’s work which everyone thinks they know, so all kinds of preconceptions are brought to it but during the six weeks of rehearsal we have been finding new things all the time, and there are so many places where we have found ourselves saying ‘But it shouldn’t really be like that’ or ‘But it doesn’t really mean that!'”

Warner is of course no stranger to controversial stagings, her earlier St John Passion at ENO having provoked very strong feelings, and Laurence says that this one will be similar in that “It’s very sensitively done, understated to a degree, and the involvement of the community groups is very moving in that it’s all from the heart, as it were, and the idea is to bring everyone onstage together no matter what their part is.” He’s hoping that people will come who don’t know Messiah, (are there any?) and be inspired by it, although he adds, “It’s important that it’s not seen as either alienating Christians or indeed any other religions, but also not to be preaching a difficult balance but one which we hope the staging does solve.”

“In a way it’s a bit like organised worship how many times do we go to a service and not really take in or mean every word? Messiah can seem at times like that (I have described it as ‘doing my duty’) so our aim was to make audiences think afresh.” Naturally he’s aware of precedents such as the ground-breaking Glyndebourne Theodora and even in Handel’s time the work was regarded as theatrical, using what the composer called ‘singing actresses’ at Covent Garden, and sometimes referring to it as an ‘Entertainment.’ The rhetorical style of performance of the work goes back to the early days, when Mrs Cibber’s performance of ‘He was despised’ inspired the remark ‘Madam, for this may all thy sins be forgiven.’

“We want people to discover the joy of singing”

This ENO Messiah has been cast from strength, with experienced Handel singers such as Catherine Wyn-Rogers and John Mark Ainsley, both well used to unconventional stagings of traditional works, and the lighting is by Jean Kalman, responsible for the wonderfully atmospheric look of so many productions at both ENO and ROH. “Above all,” Laurence says, “it’s about the sense of community you get from the work great soloists, yes, but also the framework of a whole ensemble, and that’s also expressed in the ‘Sing Hallelujah’ project.” This joint BBC / ENO venture has the grandiose-sounding aim to ‘help the nation find its voice’ but it’s been conceived in a completely undaunting way “We want people to discover the joy of singing, initially through a work like the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus which they may already know” and the website www.bbc.co.uk/sing is designed to help newcomers to singing to develop their skills and knowledge.

The ENO Messiah and the BBC/ENO events in Glasgow (5 December, City Hall) and London (6 December, Coliseum) are the culmination of the project, begun back in September with a Proms performance 2009 is the 250th anniversary year of Handel’s death, and the year’s close will be marked by a broadcast on Radio 3 of the production, so those who cannot make it to London between now and 11 December, will at least be able to enjoy Laurence Cummings’ conducting and hear some great singing.

Deborah Warner’s staging of Messiah conducted by Laurence Cummings opens at the Coliseum on Friday 27 November, and there are a further eight performances.

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Interview: Laurence Cummings on staging ‘Messiah’