Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Messiah – Theater an der Wien, 2009 (Part 1: Not Your Father’s Messiah)

If you want a traditional concert performance of this hallowed oratorio or if your entire idea of Messiah is the Christmas section plus the Halleluiah chorus, this DVD is not for you. On the other hand, if you have heard Handel’s Messiah at least once a year for the past (mumblemumble) years, have sung it many times, know it well and/or have many recordings of it, and you wonder what new light could be shed on this work, this version staged by Claus Guth just might be the thing for you. 
I'll supply some excerpts in these posts, but Guth's Messiah is best experienced and best understood if viewed in its entirety, from beginning to end.  

I first experienced this performance via clips on YouTube: bits of the oratorio sung by tenor Richard Croft and the ever-awesome Arnold Schoenberg Choir.  This was a historically informed performance (HIP) of such high quality that I decided to convert the videos to mp3s so I could carry them around and listen to the performances. Both as pure music and as theater, this is very much as Handel described it: an entertainment. 
This is not a literal staging of Messiah.  Tying literal action to the text would be icky; and technically, there is no real narrative to the oratorio (hear that, Christof Loy?). Herr Guth adds a separate, 21st century layer of interpretation, almost a secular sermon.  He does not correlate the central character (performed by a dancer) specifically with Jesus. (Contrary to popular belief, this oratorio not about Christ, per se. Messiah is about redemption, and the texts are mostly Old Testament prophecies and verses from Revelation, with just a few bits from the Gospels.)
So initially, there is a big disconnect between the music and the action, because many of us know Messiah inside and out, and since it’s sung in English, we can understand the original text. (If this were another oratorio in another language, we might not be so bothered.) But all of the emotions of the music are there: anger, joy, sadness, comfort.
Guth looks at how we respond to tragedy, betrayal, loss, and other bad things that happen to people. When do we call upon God? How and when do we question our faith? How do we find reassurance and comfort when we are in the darkness—questioning, and seeking comfort? How is God with us now?  
I personally became more comfortable with, and more intrigued by this layering of stories after watching the most recent Bayreuth Parsifal, a production that actually relates three stories. It turns out that, done right, it works very well; many stories can be told at one time. 
There are seven principals in this performance: The deceased, portrayed by a dancer; two men who seem to be his brothers (bass and countertenor); two sopranos (wives of the dancer and the countertenor); a boy soprano, the countertenor’s son; a tenor, the minister; and a sign language performer who appears in several guises.  

Speaking of the sign language interpreter, Nadia Kichler: While there are no subtitles for her, many of her signs look like ASL (American Sign Language), though it is more likely German or Austrian Sign Language.  Knowing Guth’s penchant for hand motions, he may even have made up some of his own signs. (The chorus employs some “Guthian” handwork throughout the performance.) Sometimes she seems to be translating the sung text; but other times, she seems to be adding commentary: a third layer of communication. Her first appearance is during the overture. Throughout the performance she generally interacts with others on stage. At the end of part 1, the chorus concludes His yoke is easy, but she continues to sign as the curtain closes. 
All of the musicians—soloists, chorus, orchestra—turn in solid performances on this disk. In the next post, I will talk more about the stage action. Meanwhile here is the overture and opening recitative: 


  1. An amazing, amazing, amazing performance. It's my go-to version of The Messiah every year at Christmas time. I haven't yet bought the DVD, but I'd jump at the chance to buy a CD, if it were available, because musically, I think there's none better . . . . . some of the dramatizations can be a bit off-putting, in my opinion, but still some are very sweet and much more touching than a simple stand-up performance of a choir. If you watch the presentation, be prepared for the unusual - the abnormal - the strange. But the music is unrivaled.

  2. I downloaded this from foxtel at Christmas 2019 just to get my annual Messiah fix (I love it and have sung more times than I can remember), but didn't get to watch it until Jan 8th. Wow, was I surprised!! What a remarkable, moving, visually beautiful, musically excellent and unusual treatment of the loved oratorio. Just listening to it would be fantastic, specially with countertenor Bejun Mehta taking all the traditional alto solos, but seeing the story unfold of the family of two brothers of a man who committed suicide, and the impact on all their lives.....what can I say. Simply stunning in every aspect.


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