As the calendar ticks over into December and Christmas looms properly into view, there are certain things that can be guaranteed – that there will be arguments over whether Die Hard is a Christmas film. That you’ll buy yourself a discount advent calendar because you’re never too old. And that somewhere, choirs are dusting off their music for Handel’s Messiah.
Tonight, it’s the mighty Glyndebourne opera company who have taken on the mantle, sandwiching it between performances of The Rake’s Progress and Don Pasquale as part of a three-night residency at the Liverpool Empire during their wider UK tour.
In contrast to these two shows, their Messiah is set to be a more austere affair, with a simple tier of chairs for the chorus and additional seating for tonight’s four soloists. And whilst the orchestra remains tucked out of sight in the pit, it is a production that is boldly giving its ensemble nowhere to hide.
The Messiah is a work that Handel himself left open to artistic interpretation and over the years, more pomp and scale has been added to the work, with composers such as Mozart himself getting in on re-orchestrations, to create the grander versions most audiences are familiar with. Even last year, the Self Isolation Choir put together a version featuring 3800 singers who never met, recording their parts individually to bring together into one mammoth rendition.
Tonight, we have a far sparser chorus of 34, and whilst there has been a trend for stripping the Messiah back towards a more authentic and modest adaptation, it leaves the piece feeling a bit threadbare and lacking in depth of sound. Clarity of harmony can’t help but be lost when there simply aren’t the numbers.
Messiah has no real narrative structure, using scriptural writings as a basis to leap from the first prophesies of the birth of Jesus in Isaiah, and later to the shepherds on the hill, before leaping forward to the Passion, resurrection and ascension.
Our sense of mood is set by lighting, for example using stark black and blood red, during the Passion, and giving way to richer greens and golds during the celebratory and heaven-bound finale. It’s a nice touch in a static and visually bare performance.
Certainly, our chorus and soloists do a sterling job with the oratorio too. All are in fine voice and Soprano Carrie Ann Williams’ rendition of ‘I know my redeemer liveth’ in the third part is a pure and beautiful highlight. The baroque qualities of the smaller orchestra also come through pleasantly.
But choral works like this can sometimes risk feeling – like a Paganini violin recital – a bit of an exercise in technical mastery rather than heart and soul. Particularly in the first part, our troupe contend with trills and melismatic runs, resulting in some spectacular vocal gymnastics that eventually become a bit of an endurance event for singer and audience alike.
Even the Hallelujah chorus itself, which sees the audience abide by tradition to rise to their feet for its duration, falls a touch flat, sung flawlessly but without any genuine sense of exaltation and majesty. And the production is not helped by the participation of, what turns out not to be a rogue timpani, but the comings and goings of trains at Liverpool Lime Street next door.
Quieter moments do allow for a touch of spiritual reflection and overall, it is a fluent account of Handel’s most well-known work. But one can’t help longing for a fuller, beefier performance even if it a bit old fashioned these days.
Glyndebourne continue their UK tour throughout December. https://www.glyndebourne.com/
Reviewer: Lou Steggals
Reviewed: 2nd December 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★