Thursday, October 11, 2012

Messiah – Theater an der Wien, 2009 (Part 3: Not Your Mother’s Messiah, Either)

Claus Guth's staging of Handel's Messiah is strange and wonderful; weird and exquisite; disturbing and comforting. 

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion
Wonderful, exquisite, and comforting all describe the musical performance; and all six adjectives describe the staging. His alienating gray and institutional set is on a turntable, making scene changes swift. This plus the stark contrasts of light and shadow give the production a cinematic feeling. 

Is the ending uplifting, or comforting? Kind of, but I think Guth doesn't want us to get our hopes up too much. The final chorus is not triumphant the way one feels at the end of a traditional concert performance of Messiah. The choir is in deep shadows, and moves tentatively, but the singers seem cautiously optimistic. The final Amen fugue is the prayer, rather than the “so be it” punctuation to the prayer. 

Cautiously optimistic? 
"Worthy is the lamb...Amen."

This is not a performance for sitting back and thinking, “Isn't this pretty?” Claus Guth wants more from us; he wants us to think about how God is in our lives today (or perhaps he wants us to wonder if there is a God.)

In addition to being a thought-provoking drama, this performance also reminds us what wonderful, expressive music Handel has given us. This music is performed exquisitely by an impressive group of musicians: Richard Croft (power Mozart tenor) and Bejun Mehta (smooth, if light countertenor) from the U.S., Susan Gritton (an -ina soprano) from the UK, and Cornelia Horak (thoughtful, warm-voiced soprano) and Florian Boesch (solid, if somewhat fuzzy bass) from Austria, plus the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and Ensemble Matheus, led by Jean-Chrisophe Spinosi.

This is not our fathers' (and mothers') Messiah—my Mom would have hated it*. And it should never be your only Messiah recording (unless they release it on CD). But it is a Messiah for the twenty-first century—and a Messiah that is strange, thought-provoking, and beautifully performed.

Curtain Calls

*Throughout her life, Mom sang and played the violin; she participated in many performances of Messiah in the chorus or orchestra. In the last few years, she would say she didn't care if she played, sang, or heard Messiah ever again. Now that I think about it, she might really have enjoyed this unique take on an old "warhorse."


  1. I liked this one too. I'm not religious, and I found that the staging and musical performances came together in a way that was meaningful & interesting even if one's views on the meaning of life are secular.

  2. Thanks for your comment. You make a very good point, and one I didn't emphasize enough. I think one of Guth's points (or maybe his entire point) is the universality of Handel's masterpiece.


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