Handel, Messiah, S. Gritton, C. Harak, R. Croft, B. Mehta, F. Boesch, Ensemble Matheus, J.-C. Spinosi (staging by Claus Guth)
(released on September 28, 2010)
Unitel/C Major 703008 | 2h34
The set, constantly revolving on a base, is a characterless space of corridors and exit signs that lead nowhere. It may be the back hallways of a nondescript church, perhaps the compound of a family of religious leaders of some sort, populated by a chorus of the group's followers. And the glory of the Lord serves as a hymn that the gathered mourners look up in their hymnals and sing together, closing the books at the closing cadential chords, to the words "hath spoken it," with expressions of contentment and comfort at the words. Here and elsewhere, Guth gives the chorus some high school show choir hand motions -- in the unfortunately awkward vein of Peter Sellars. None of this is made any clearer by the role given to the tenor soloist, the excellent Richard Croft, costumed as some sort of clergyman in black with a silver cross, singing Ev'ry valley over the coffin at the funeral: perhaps he corresponds to the pious Charles Jennens, author of the work's libretto, who may have seen himself as the "voice that crieth in the wilderness."
Adding in a sign language performer (Nadia Kichler) as a cleaning woman (or other unspecified roles) who urgently comments on the action at various points -- not translated in the subtitles, but it appears to be at least partially words from the libretto -- does not help, either. Flashbacks relate what happened before the suicide, including a tryst between the dead man's brother, the alto soloist Bejun Mehta, and the dead man's wife. Handel, even in his wildest dreams, could not have imagined that his duet O Death, where is thy sting? and aria If God be for us would ever be staged, let alone in the way Guth has done it. Take a look yourself in the video embedded below.
For all the oddities of the extraneous narrative of Guth's staging, the musical performance is quite good, with an excellent combination of singers (the only possible question mark being the choice to give the angel's solos to treble Martin Pöllman) and the crack early music group Ensemble Matheus, who are an Ionarts favorite. Director Jean-Christophe Spinosi's tempi are on the edge of wild, not unlike Rinaldo Alessandrini's with the NSO last month, but verge into the chaotic more often. Croft, who sounds great and adds lovely embellishments and cadenzas to his arias, is often drastically off rhythmically from Spinosi and the orchestra, for example. Unlike Alessandrini, Spinosi is much more willing to make severe disruptions to the tempo, to emphasize textual or musical moments. All of this is part of the charm of live performance, but it is not enough to warrant a recommendation instead of a bemused notice.