Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience

Being dead, the great maestro of late baroque composition has the hope of being raised incorruptible. However, Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience illustrates how his extant work is only too susceptible to mortal corruption.

Very disappointing, over-hyped, multi-media theatrical miscellany

If it were possible to isolate the performance of the great oratorio from all the nonsense that surrounds it in this senseless production we would hear a fairly standard interpretation of the work. Those looking forward to this might well close their eyes to avoid being distracted, but even then there would be issues. The Theatre Royal is a spectacular building but it is not designed for works such as this. Lacking the acoustics of a fine church or purpose-built concert venue, or indeed the Coliseum, the London Symphony Chorus were deadened by their location on the rear half of the stage. They were certainly audible but the quality of the sound went upwards to be lost in the flies and outwards to hit the proscenium. The English Chamber Orchestra, being further forward, however, were in fine form with enough body to support the big chorus numbers and sufficient restraint to accompany the subtlety mic’d soloists.

Tenor Nicky Spence, with a welcoming smile, sang the opening Comfort ye my people with tenderness and passion. He sustained that warmth throughout, announcing that the iniquities of God’s people would be pardoned, which is more than can be said for the abominations perpetrated by those responsible for this production. Cody Quattlebaum cut a dash as he entered with his naturals curls flowing to a length beyond the wildest dreams of a Restoration wig-maker. Complete with boots, breeches and a black frock coat, images of the voice of one crying in the wilderness came to mind, although he exhibited a presence akin to musketeer. His rich bass provided bold renditions of the often fiery solos Handle gave to this voice, leaving us to believe that darkness might well cover the earth and that the trumpet shall sound. Mezzo Iddunu Münch similarity rose to the occasion, her smooth tones imparting the sincerity of a prophetess as she announced with a air of mystery, Behold, a virgin shall conceive and with the stated sorrow and grief proclaimed He was despised and rejected of men.

Danielle de Niese, however seemed to be carried away with creating something on a grander, more operatic scale which culminated in her florid, overly-embellished, rendition of I know that my Redeemer liveth. While her credentials as a soprano are beyond doubt this rendition sounded as staggeringly out of place as her outfits appeared. Quite why she needed so many changes of costume remains a mystery on a par with the choice of a see-through dress with silver tinsel-like designs and black under garments and a gold outfit with what looked like a flat Christmas-tree star decoration reaching beyond the sides of her head, which had it spun might have lifted her into the rafters.

Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience is the first event to be created by Classical Everywhere, a new venture from Immersive Everywhere, the multi-award-winning creators of events such as Peaky Blinders: The Rise, The Great Gatsby and Doctor Who: Time Fracture. Their ‘vision is to bring together the world’s greatest classical musicians and music with outstanding venues and creative and imaginative staging. The aim is to enhance the narrative and emotional power of the music to create an evocative, exhilarating, and entertaining classical experience that will appeal to ever wider audiences’. Judging by this hotch-potch of artistic endeavours the effect of their efforts might be just the opposite.

Throughout the production a floor to ceiling rectangular portrait LED appears like a giant screen-saver, splitting the choir in two. The opening image of the sun with its erupting surface persists in various forms for some time. Other scenes suggest Dalian landscapes until it all becomes just a series of flashing and melding abstracts. As an installation in the Tate Modern it would be fascinating and worthy of praise for its creators flora&faunavisions GmbH. In this context it proved to be an irritating distraction. A trio of dancers fell into the same category. Dan Baines, Jemima Brown and Sera Maehara performed in front of the orchestra, their bodies merging against a backdrop of instruments and music stands. Again, as a dance production, at say Sadlers Wells, it might have proved fascinating, although the choreography of Tom Jackson Greaves could have been applied to any number of contexts. Meanwhile, the flamboyantly arm-waving Gregory Batsleer, Artistic Director of Classical Everywhere and conductor at times seemed as though he were part of their performance.

The final element woven into this very disappointing, over-hyped, multi-media theatrical miscellany came in the form of specially commissioned poems on the theme of Mother and Child. These may or may not merit close attention but on a first hearing, recited by Arthur Darvill and Martina Laird with the words on paper in their hands, they came over as pretentious, irrelevant and an excuse for some parading around in bizarre costumes better suited to Game of Thrones.

A few entrances through the auditorium hardly counts as an immersive production and quite why Messiah needs this treatment remains a mystery; it certainly doesn’t make it any more accessible, even if the premise of its being inaccessible were to be accepted. As Beethoven observed, Händel is the unattained master of all masters. Go and learn from him how to achieve vast effects with simple means. Perhaps Director, Neil Connolly could take a leaf from his book.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

With world-class musicians and innovative and imaginative lighting design, visual effects, choreography and staging, the event promises to immerse audiences in a powerful and theatrical new setting for Handel’s much-loved musical telling of the story of Christ. With its universal human themes of birth, hope, joy, suffering, sacrifice and redemption this musical biopic has captivated audiences for centuries. Come and be the first to experience this brand new adaptation.

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