Sunday, 29 November 2009


To London to hear and see English National Opera's new staging of Handel's Messiah.

One of the most popular works in the classical reportoire, Messiah is customarily produced on the concert platform with formal ranks of orchestra, chorus and soloists.

It's an excellent way to relish the composer's gloriously tuneful score and to be drawn in to librettist Charles Jenner's artful selection of texts from the King James version of the Bible, all of which invite us to ponder the identity and significance of Jesus Christ.

But this is definitely not a static concert performance. A huge cast of chorus, dancers, soloists and children conjure up a series of 'scenes' in which the familar choruses and arias are presented in a stylised, yet instantly recognizable, contemporary urban setting.

The spare design hints at offices, a school, the street, the park - an ordinary world, into which someone extraordinary is breaking in.

There's no attempt to offer a literal presentation of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.

But the show is all the more powerful for the obliqueness of the images created on the vast stage of the London Coliseum: small boy, fizzing with energy, runs through the crowd; a young woman finds a stranger has left lilies on her bed; a classically clunky infants' nativity play, suddenly glows with numinous meaning; a young woman lies dying on a hospital bed....

All of the familar choruses and arias are presented in the correct order, magnificently sung by a cracking chorus and top-notch soloists - you can hear every word.

Warner's great achievement, in my view, is to present this great work with such freshness and imagination that it's as if we're seeing and hearing it for the first time.

I have no idea as to Deborah Warner's own belief in the words being sung. But what's beyond doubt is that she believes that they matter - and that the Messiah narrative is beautiful and meaningful and transformative. It makes a difference.

A great way to begin another Advent season.

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