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Joe Banno
The Classical Review, May 2011

HANDEL, G.F.: Messiah (Staged Version) (Theater an der Wien, 2009) (NTSC) 703008
HANDEL, G.F.: Messiah (Staged Version) (Theater an der Wien, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 703104

Director Claus Guth’s operatic re-imagining of Handel’s Messiah for Vienna’s Theater an der Wien in 2009—a production recently released on DVD and Blu-ray by Unitel Classica and C Major—is conceived on an uncommonly grand physical scale. Placed on a gargantuan turntable, Christian Schmidt’s set creates a continuously evolving maze of fluorescently-lit corporate meeting rooms, starkly appointed hotel suites and hallways, lined with dozens of mysterious doors, that stretch out and sharply angle off into darkness. The large rooms are repurposed for the needs of Guth’s invented scenario
(a funeral chapel is transformed into a party room and then an executive boardroom) and many of the key scenes take place in those anonymous hallways.

The feeling of a stripped-down modern world devoid of warmth or any sense of nature or time-of-day is arrestingly evoked. And the often surreal manner in which Jürgen Hoffmann lights the tight groupings of choristers—the Arnold Schoenberg Chor in superb vocal form (though unable to disguise their German-accented English delivery), and treated by Guth variously as mourners, religious zealots, tipsy partygoers, and editorializing Greek choristers—lends vivid atmosphere to the stage pictures.

In one sense, the simple story Guth has imposed on what was originally a recounting of Jesus’ nativity and passion could be regarded as reductive, even mundane: a businessman whose wife is cheating on him with his own brother, and whose other brother is a drug-addicted pariah, commits suicide after a corporate presentation fails and destroys his career. There are more than a few overly literal applications of the music to everyday events (‘For Unto Us A Child Is Born’ for a cocktail reception following a baptism; ‘He Was Despised’ for the businessman’s rejection by his corporate colleagues, etc), and an ineffectual minister is given a few too many opportunities for anguished hand-wringing when his religious message isn’t being heard by his troubled flock.

But there’s something potent going on in Guth’s staging as well. Thanks to his shrewdly chosen cast of singers—all vocally strong and well-suited to this material, and at the top of their game as affecting singing-actors—the director creates a compelling narrative built from small, dramatically telling moments, where the grandeur and metaphysical scope of Handel’s score registers as the barely contained subtext, the roiling inner life of characters who, on the surface, seem stricken, only just alive.

Bass-baritone Florian Boesch and countertenor Bejun Mehta give layered performances as the businessman’s brothers (Boesch as the socially volatile addict, Mehta as the marital cheat), and there’s effective tension generated between sopranos Susan Gritton and Cornelia Horak as a pair of long-suffering wives. Even tenor Richard Croft is able to find nuance in the one-note role of the preacher who always manages to arrive too late to really help anyone. Conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi values smart attacks and fraught pauses—that serve to tellingly point up myriad moments in the drama—in
his reading with the period-instrument band Ensemble Matheus.

But the transcendent core of the production is the casting of two non-singing roles. The businessman is played by dancer Paul Lorenger, whose anguished eyes, grimly set mouth and steel-spined posture make him impossible to take your eyes off. His lithe, deeply expressive movement in Ramses Sigl’s choreography communicates more about Guth’s narrative and the depth of Handel’s music—this businessman could just as well be Jesus in a modern suit—than all the singing combined.

The other extraordinary presence onstage is Nadia Kichler, a strikingly lovely sign language performer who appears in various guises (though most often as a hotel maid) and who is unseen by all except the characters who seem most in need of her otherworldly solace. She’s obviously occupying the ‘angel’ role in the drama, although it’s never clear whether her signing is a literal translation of the sung text, another set of words entirely, or an invented language of hieratic gesture—maybe all three? But so luminous is her presence, so haunting her wordless communication with some unseen world, that she brings an almost unbearably moving beauty to the dark night of the soul unfolding around her.

Matthew Gurewitsch
Opera News, January 2011

HANDEL, G.F.: Messiah (Staged Version) (Theater an der Wien, 2009) (NTSC) 703008
HANDEL, G.F.: Messiah (Staged Version) (Theater an der Wien, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 703104

The man of sorrows in the grey flannel suit? This time, it might be a subtle Prince-de-Galles plaid, but either way, the grief he suffers is not quite what we read of in the gospels. His wife cheats on him, very possibly with his brother, or is the other man his best friend? His board of directors shreds and tosses his white paper. No wonder this latter-day bearer of the world’s crosses slashes his wrists in a hotel room.

As everyone knows, Handel’s Messiah consists of a patchwork of Biblical prophecies, reflections and exclamations. In 2009, the adventurous Theater an der Wien commemorated the 250th anniversary of the death of the composer with a dramatization of the oratorio by Claus Guth, the fashionable German director responsible for the Salzburg Festival’s current Mozart-da Ponte productions. With Mozart, Guth seems to be peeking into a palace through a keyhole, making much too much of the next to nothing he happens to see. Here, he pieces together a narrative peopled with stereotypes, and therein lies its power.

As in an opera, each soloist of the ensemble has a person to play. Paul Lorenger—barefoot, attaché case in hand—dances the ghost of the suicide in his business suit, emoting, collapsing, sometimes bouncing off the walls. In another silent role, Nadia Kichler, her face scrubbed and eager, communicates vibrantly in sign language, whether one guesses her meanings or not. 

As for the singers, both sopranos—Cornelia Horak as the suicide’s straying wife, Susan Gritton as the wife of the first woman’s lover—are superb musicians, cool and fresh, somewhat instrumental in timbre yet intimate in expression. The men are even better. Bejun Mehta, supreme among countertenors, sings the immaculately turned out, conscience-stricken adulterer, his tone like molten gold, his sensuous features mirroring a world of turmoil. As another friend or brother of the suicide, Florian Boesch portrays a tempestuous nonconformist, his mighty bass by turns silken and snarling yet never seeming to shift gears. Richard Croft, unflatteringly done up as a perhaps pharisaical preacher, sings the tenor part in light, lambent phrases. Boy soprano Martin Pöllmann delivers a single recitative like a schoolchild’s party piece. The singers of the virtuoso Arnold Schoenberg Chor play individuals, not a mass; their faces are beautiful to watch.

The action begins with the suicide’s funeral, putting a counterintuitive yet strangely cogent spin on the radiant comfort of the tenor’s opening solo. Roughly halfway through the first of the oratorio’s three sections, a long flashback begins. By Part III, we have caught up. The funeral is over, and the mourners are left to pick up the pieces. The revolving set is a constantly mutating labyrinth of high-ceilinged corridors giving onto anonymous assembly spaces, hotel rooms, the master suite of a private home. For the most part, Guth proves himself an inventive if earnest storyteller, but occasionally the King James Bible dishes up unintended farce. Gently aglow in a hotel room after her illicit tryst, Horak regales Mehta, who is nearly dressed, with Romans 10:15. “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace,” she sings, all the while caressing—what else?—his feet. She won’t let the man put on his socks.

Under their founder Jean-Christophe Spinosi, the instrumentalists of the eclectic Ensemble Matheus attack the overture with grim solemnity. Thereafter, their contribution to the palette and the drama is kaleidoscopic and constant.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, December 2010

George Frideric Handel’s 1742 masterpiece Messiah (now playing at a church or concert hall near you) is an oratorio—a succession of arias and choruses usually focused on a sacred story—with no characters and no plot. For the libretto, Charles Jennens assembled bits and pieces from the Bible that speak to the core of Christian faith. Although it’s pretty hard to imagine staging Messiah like an opera, that didn’t stop opera director Claus Guth from giving it a go in Vienna, to mark the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death last year. The chorus and soloists find themselves inside a cavernous, anonymous hotel (Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit purgatory, as designed by Holiday Inn), pursued by a mute dancer in a beige suit and a cleaning woman who knows sign language. The effect is surreal and in no way adds to the music. The soloists, including hot countertenor Bejun Mehta, are good; the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, excellent. Ensemble Matheus and its conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi are also fine, but (is it to take the edge off the hotel hallways?) the music’s contours are too round and soft for my taste. A “why we did this” featurette would have been nice on this extra-free DVD

Anne Shelley
Music Media Monthly, December 2010

HANDEL, G.F.: Messiah (Staged Version) (Theater an der Wien, 2009) (NTSC) 703008
HANDEL, G.F.: Messiah (Staged Version) (Theater an der Wien, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 703104

Once Handel stops rolling in his grave, he may realize that controversial stage director Claus Guth is onto something with this production—something to upset purists and, at the very least, make every oratorio lover say “Huh.” Recorded live at the historical Theater an der Wien in April 2009 in recognition of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, this rendition of Messiah brings together the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and conductor Spinosi’s capable baroque orchestra, Ensemble Mattheus.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of this undertaking is that Messiah drew harsh criticisms at its 1742 premiere, to the effect that scripture should not be sung in theatres—enough criticism that Handel billed it generically as ‘A New Sacred Oratorio’ and remained cautious of revival performances until 1750. Here, Guth delivers a dramatic narrative of a husband and father who took his own life and the repercussions of his actions upon his family. A smartly-organized rotating stage depicts various gathering rooms and door-filled hallways of a nondescript modern building. Several green exit signs with arrows indicating directions of escape are prominently displayed. The plot proceeds out of sequence and is divided into sections that loosely correspond with Handel’s three written parts: the funeral, life of suffering, loneliness-togetherness-death, and period prior to the funeral. We learn that the suicide was preceded by unhappiness, infidelity, and lies. In this staged interpretation, the characters’ struggles with their sinful desires and actions are obvious, yet their conflicting words repetitively assure themselves of their salvation.

Even having come on board with the entire concept by the conclusion of Part I, I’ll admit there are some truly bizarre moments. Beginning with “For unto us a Child is born,” the entire chorus exhibits large, asynchronous hand gestures that recapitulate throughout the production. And the “Amen” capstone nearly sends the whole operation up in flames, as a bonfire pit filled with earthly possessions that the chorus prepared many scenes prior begins to smoke. A representative, vocally silent character who has permeated the production with expressions of sign language enjoys a literal and figurative spotlight in this final scene. Nearly every singer endures every possible level of verticalness, including an unusual amount of crawling, yet the vocal quality never suffers.

Musically, the performance is respectable and enjoyable and includes an especially strong male cast. Both tenor Richard Croft and countertenor Bejun Mehta deliver wondrously florid lines with astounding technique, and baritone Florian Boesch’s proclamations are thunderous yet deft. The difficulty of defining a target audience for this product makes me doubt that one was ever meant to be defined, so I hope that means it will pique the curiosity of many and bear the disdain of few.

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