Tuesday, February 2, 2021

MESSIAH (Bristol Old Vic/English Concert/Erebus Ensemble)*****


By Megan

Link: https://bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/messiah

Available until: If you buy a Season Pass you’ll have access until 28th February. Or you can rent it for 48 hours.

I love the Messiah. My mum sang it at the Royal Albert Hall and my uncle sang it at the Barbican but I didn’t go because I wasn’t born yet. It is a really beautiful piece of music by George Frideric Handel and this production is especially magical.

The Messiah isn’t a theatrical work. It is an oratorio which is written for a choir and four soloists – a soprano, a contralto or mezzo-soprano (or sometimes a counter tenor), a tenor and a bass or baritone, though sometimes there are extra soloists like having a counter tenor as well as a contralto. Something else that sometimes happens is that a boy treble will sing some of the soprano music and that happened in the Bristol Old Vic’s production.

The idea of staging the Messiah is not a new idea. The English National Opera did a staged production eleven years ago. I wasn’t born but my mum saw it and she says it had the same contralto and bass soloists as this production, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Brindley Sherratt. They are both outstanding so it is understandable that lots of companies want them to sing for them but I wonder maybe if it is partly that not all singers are comfortable with the idea of a staged production of the Messiah. Lots of Handel’s oratorios work really well onstage, Semele and Jephtha are staged so much I didn’t even know they were oratorios at first. But these oratorios (and lots of others) have a really clear and obvious story and most of the singers play characters with their own personalities and storylines.

The Messiah tells the story of Jesus’ life and death but there aren’t any characters. The soloists are narrators. They sing lines from the Bible which tell you what happens but there isn’t very much you can stage and a lot of what is described is really sad and nasty.

Bristol Old Vic’s production has a theme but I don’t know if it’s really a story. Tom Morris is the director and his production is about a community who are all grieving. Their leader (the Beloved) has died and they don’t really know how to go on without him. But I only know this because I read it on the site. I couldn’t work it out from watching it but maybe a grown-up could.

This Messiah is really brilliant musically (conductor Harry Bicket draws a beautiful and magical sound out of the English Concert). But (if it’s not rude to say so) this production never really felt like an opera. It was more like a relaxed version of an oratorio. ‘Relaxed’ isn’t quite the right word because it was full of emotion but the singers weren’t all standing in lines the whole time the way they usually do when the Messiah is performed. They move to different parts of the stage and sometimes they leave the stage.

In a weird way (I hope this doesn’t sound really stupid) the type of performance it reminded me of the most was a ballet. There isn’t any ballet at all but it is a performance where the movement of the performers and the way they are arranged onstage is really important. They aren’t just walking into position, their movements fit in with the style of the music and it helps to create the atmosphere. It is beautiful to watch and very atmospheric.

The orchestra (English Concert) are sitting on both sides of the stage There is also a table near the front of the stage at a diagonal angle. The stage is dark (the lighting design is by Robert Carey) and not very deep. At the back of the stage there is a sort of jagged rock wall. Anna Orton designed the set and it is sort of sad and scary but beautiful. The singers and orchestra have been placed really cleverly so the stage never looks crowded or cramped and the orchestra and the table don’t seem to get in the way.

I said the Messiah has no characters but this production actually has one. The role of the Beloved was played by a different actor every night and at this performance he is played by Jamie Beddard. The Beloved doesn’t sing or speak. He spends most of his time lying still on a table. Lying still is one of the most difficult parts of acting, especially in a live production. Mr Beddard has cerebral palsy so it might be even harder for him (though no two people with the same disability are the same) but he stays amazingly still. When he does move, he conveys so much with his acting and he is really moving to watch.

Julia Doyle has a clear ringing soprano which really adds to the magical feel of the performance. Catherine Wyn-Rogers sings the contralto music powerfully and beautifully. Even though she’s not playing a character she seems very emotionally involved in what’s happening. Joshua Ellicott is a very confident tenor soloist with a light voice that is just right for Handel. Brindley Sherratt’s agile bass has a really wonderful sonorous sound. Treble Harry Ashbee, who starts singing from the audience, is really impressive and confident. The Erebus Ensemble sound gorgeous too. It’s probably one of the best-sung Messiahs ever but I’m sure my mum’s and my uncle’s were really good too.

Even if you’re not sure about the idea of a staged version of the Messiah I think this is worth watching just for the brilliant and beautiful performances. And the staging might surprise you.

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