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American Opera Theater's Messiah

Of the nine Messiah performances in the area last weekend, American Opera Theater’s stab at the Handel oratorio offered historicism and novelty alike. Timothy Nelson, who also conceived the production, conducted the 1742 Dublin version of the work’s premiere played by his Ignoti Dei period-instrument ensemble of a dozen players. The novelty came in the form of AOT staging the oratorio — as far as we know for the first time ever in America. The work opened with the stage littered with hundreds of pages ripped from books, a few chairs, and a ladder, as well as arches projected onto the walls. Meanwhile the orchestra, seated in the back third of the stage of Georgetown University’s Gonda Theatre, offered a lightly played overture.

Tenor Aaron Sheehan’s expressive Comfort ye my people was given with his head in his hands, seemingly distraught over a lady (“Comfort her, that her iniquity is pardoned.”) In the quick runs of Every valley shall be exalted, his vocal agility was limited by an awkward technique. Bass-baritone David Newman, dressed as a homeless man, entered the stage singing Thus Saith the Lord, chasing the tenor with a section of pipe. Soprano Bonnie McNaughton tried to make up with vibrato what she lacked in volume in her aria Who may abide the day of His coming; but if it lacked clarity, the extemporaneous flourishes were dazzling. Contralto Kristen Dubenion-Smith joined the three singers already on stage in And He Shall Purify, which featured much beauty despite every singer choosing to pronounce the ‘i’ differently.

William Blake, Good and Evil Angels [Struggling for
Possession of a Child or Soul], 1795-1805
Eventually the Georgetown Chamber Singers went to work with For unto us a child is born, but the fun really began only with the entrance of the amply winged angel. Soprano Sherezade Panthaki, lit from behind, sang her series of short narrative pieces with a shimmering musical halo from the orchestra. The chorus distinguished itself during Glory to God with fine diction but was overly reliant on amplification. Panthaki’s fast, narrow vibrato allowed her voice be in constant motion with a sinuous legato in Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion, and virtuosic runs were spiced with interesting ornaments. Panthaki’s superbly resonating voice was distorted by the microphones, intended only for the orchestra and chorus. Adding to the non-musical cacophony were the two overhead projectors that produced strong whirring noises reminiscent of hair dryers.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, American Opera Theatre: 'Messiah' (Washington Post, December 10)
The second half featured Newman, our homeless bass-baritone, breaking chairs while convincingly singing of “the Nations’ rage.” Soon thereafter he began ripping the wings off of the angel (text: “and cast away”). The tenor then slowly removed his belt to tie the angel’s arms to the top of the ladder resembling something between Jesus on the cross and a bondage flick. He then ravaged the angel while singing “thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them into pieces” and whacked her with a plastic pipe. Feathers were flying as he further thrashed her detached wings.

The Hallelujah Chorus came next – with the four singers predatorily circling the tortured, tied-up, wingless angel. Needless to say, the audience’s instinct to stand and cheerily sing along had been zapped by that point. On the musical front the natural trumpets were more or less on key while the timpanist sounded rather muffled. After a set change, the resurrection theme was reinforced by Panthaki’s rendition of I Know That My Redeemer Liveth. The wingless angel, now presumably human, kissed the homeless bass-baritone at length in silence.

American Opera Theater will reprise this staged Messiah, in a slightly different form, with the Handel Choir of Baltimore's Chandos Singers at the Baltimore Museum of Art (December 22, 8 pm; December 23, 3 pm).

Timothy Nelson, Artistic Director of American Opera Theater, responds:
I am deeply troubled by Michael Lodico's assertion that our production of Messiah has sado-masochistic overtones. It absolutely has no intended or overtly unintended sexual component. I suppose that since we use a woman as our allegorical "lamb," for Michael the sight of a woman bound is sexual (where I doubt if it were a man in that role this would be the case). That said, a scene of binding and violence is essential for any telling of the Messianic story, and there was nothing presented on stage that sexualizes this in ANY way. If there were any evidence that a sexual overtone had been intended, rather than simply intuited by whatever was going through Michael's own head, I wouldn't even bring this up. But the show is free of everything except the violence described in the text, nothing at all sexual.


Varun said...

Agreed. This was absolutely the most bizarre production of Messiah I've ever seen. While applauding the "think different" nature of this production, I think I'm going to have to agree with the S&M line (glad to see you got it past the politburo, Michael). Suffice to say, I don't think I'm going to another Messiah for a long time.

Clayton Koonce said...

While the S&M look is trendy right now on the opera stage (as in WNO's recent Boheme), I don't think that was the intention here. AOT wanted to portray violence in the scene involving the assault on the angel, but this was not supposed to be in the S&M vein, in my view. Further, I don't know if there was an error in posting your review, but it seems to cut off short and leaves the wrong impression about the angel's kiss. And the chorus's final Amen was very good. (The machinery noise overhead was intrusive. I thought it was the theater's ventilation system.)

jfl said...

Whadday know... can't even sodomize an angel on stage anymore, these days, without being accused of sexual innuendo...

Perhaps Timothy Nelson should remind himself that not only is there nothing either good nor bad, but thinking making it so -- but also that that's perfectly legitimate.

To stage a woman (or man) being tied with a belt and then assaulted with a pipe in whatever fashion -- and then turn around and try to shame a reviewer for the suggestion of 'bondage' having been a flavor of the production is not appropriate.

If TN were ever so concerned with there being no sexual connotations involved, whatsoever, in his staging, perhaps he could have done it in a way that could have assured not giving that impression? Faulting Michael for seeing that particular element in it by the not-too-thinly revealed suggestion he must have a dirty, or even deceased, or sexually one-dimensional mind is - in my view - unthoughtful, out of line, and an own-goal.

Jens F. Laurson

Varun said...

Timothy - I was there on that first night, when there was a glitch on the speakers right at the end, when people didn't clap until I - out of politeness - started the clapping twice: once when the conductor walked on stage at the start of act 2, once again when the lights dimmed for the stage change immediately after the scene Michael referenced.

Michael is absolutely right. Putting Sherezade in a skin-tight white outfit, binding her up hands up with a tie that had just be stripped off Aaron's character brutally to a ladder and having the others circle her, beating her smacks of precisely the wrong idea if what you're trying to do is a non-sexual innuendo. Aaron's character even took off his belt when he ripped off his tie, and for a good ten seconds I was afraid he was about to do the same with his pants. The fact is, even if you did not "intend" for it to be overtly sexual, that is precisely how it came out. It was unnecessarily sadist, unnecessarily masochistic and involved bondage. How about tying Sherezade with hands to the side or leaving Aaron's belt where it belonged - holding up his pants and not lying uselessly on the floor? Two small actions that could have made this less S&M and just violent.

That there was not so much as a whimper of support in the audience indicates that you crossed the line with many of the others as well; there was only a half-hearted clapping (again, one that I started out of politeness) only some ten seconds after the lights had dimmed on stage. I agree with your methods - by all means make people uncomfortable, particularly a staid work. But once you stick yourself out on a limb, don't be surprised if the branch doesn't hold your weight.

PS, Charles - I was there. There is no reason that it should have been described as anything else other than S&M. Please restore the title. Don't bring the politics to this blog; I can open the window and get that. I come here to get away from that sort of drudgery.

Akimon Azuki said...

I was there on Friday as well. If a man takes out his belt to beat up a tied up woman, it's not usually just for the sound of it. It's impossible to escape the sexual connotations. I think I have seen enough accounts of Passion, everything from plays and TV movies to the torture porn version by Mel Gibson to feel that what AOT presented was not yer "standard" Jesus flogging reference. I do believe Tim Nelson may have seen it differently in his mind, but an artist has to be ready to take on any readings of their work, no matter how wrong they seem to him, especially in something as iconic as the M-word. Until we have push button telepathic link to the audience, actions on stage will always speak louder than any words.

Anonymous said...

But I think that last point proves TN's point that it is simply because the violence is upon a woman that it is seen as sexual. The violence is part of the story and since it is incited upon a woman it may appear sexual. It unfortunate though that people can't see past this. It was such a small part of the production and clearly not meant to be seen as sexual. Knowing this company if they had wanted it to be sexual they would have pushed a lot further. I have to say that dwelling on this one aspect and not looking at it in the context of the whole production is kind of small minded. It is like those who complain about the Peter Sellars champaign duet in "Giovanni" without considering its context. Personally I think it would have worked even if it was sexual. Sexual violence is extremely ugly and it would have made the redemption and forgiveness of part three all that much more meaningful.

Anonymous said...

I was at the performance on Saturday, and I truly had no notion of the beating as sexual. To me, the violence against the de-winged angel simply represented Christ's mistreatment and crucifixion. Though she was beaten, I have no recollection of her being "ravaged," and she was certainly not in a "skin-tight white outfit," but rather a flowing angelic white robe.

Overall, I found the performance extremely powerful, moving, and thought-provoking. I've heard the music many times, but found that Nelson's production really made me think about the meaning of the words in a new way and added great depth to the work as a whole.

Clearly people will interpret what they saw differently, but I think Nelson has every right to remind us that any sexual overtone was unintentional. Since such an interpretation had not even occurred to me before reading the review, I have no doubt of his sincerity.

In fact, I was so impressed that I intend to attend one of the Baltimore performances and wish there were more in DC. Thank you, Mr. Nelson! Keep up the good work! Good artistry makes people discuss it. :)

Anonymous said...

I agree with the previous two comments, from maestro2bee and from Mike -- that the scene with the angel being tied up was not sexual, nor intended to be understood as sexual. Rather, to me it was about humans taking out their frustration and rage on this sudden emissary from God, whom they thought had left them abandoned in a lonely, at times nonsensical world.

Aaron the tenor was a yuppie struggling to come to terms with the Christian faith on an intellectual level. David the bass-baritone was a mentally ill homeless man. Kristen the contralto was an unwed pregnant woman who either didn't want to have the child or did and suffered a miscarriage. Bonnie the soprano was a smug evangelical. I empathized with each one of the characters insofar as each portrayed truly human moments in the experience of religious faith. When the angel appeared, they were at first astonished. But then they grew to resent and hate the angel, perhaps for not having responded immediately to their personal struggles, perhaps for not living up to their expectations. To me, the most powerful scene in the show was at the end when the characters were positioned isolated from each other on the stage after the rage scene. The angel appeared once more, kissed David on the lips, and at once cured him of his mental illness. The kiss made me think of the final scene in the Broadway production of The Elephant Man a few years ago, when Billy Crudup’s title character passed away and was relieved of his suffering. Like the dying Elephant Man, David’s facial muscles slackened and relaxed. And then his eyes brightened. He approached the tenor and whispered in his ear the good news about the Messiah, and the two spread the news to the others. I thought of Jesus connecting with the untouchable class, or with Mary Magdalene. It felt miraculous. It was so beautiful.

Like many people, I’ve been to a number of Messiah performances, and I do love the music. I performed the work with my high school chamber choir. American Opera Theater’s performance made me engage the work in a wholly new way. It was refreshing and it was wonderful. I heartily recommend it.

I was at the Saturday performance at Georgetown.

Anonymous said...

i was at a performance last weekend, and i just looked online for a review. here is my take: according to the gospel story, jesus was tied to a post (the cross) bound, and whipped. the angel in the AOT production was tied to a post (a ladder), bound, and whipped. seems pretty clear to me that this was intended to directly parallel the christ story. and yes, seeing violence on stage (albeit by a foam noodle) is uncomfortable. but the story continues with redemption. i'm disappointed that hardly anyone has commented on the amazing scene AFTER the one that has raised such discussion, where true redemption begins and unity is found. i applaud nelson for his work.

Anonymous said...

I am a member of the Georgetown University Chamber Singers, who served as the chorus for this production. We were there for several dress runs, and, at first, we were shocked too. It was hard to suppress gasps when Sherezade was beaten (albeit with a foam noodle), and I'm surprised no one has mentioned the chorus "Let All The Angels of God" in which the soloists gave the Angel several variations of the finger while singing. To me, that was more of a stretch from the text than the beating ever was.

Obviously, it was strange that Aaron took off his belt before tying Sherezade up. I have no explanation for that. But I firmly believe that, taken in context of the entire production, it was never intended to be nor ever seemed to me to come across as sexual.

Furthermore, I strongly agree with the several posters who've brought up the final act of the production, an act which the reviewer--much to the detriment of his credibility in my eyes--failed even to comment upon. The final act, if anything, was the most moving of all, which Sherezade opens, singing one of the most emotional renditions of "I Know That my Redeemer Liveth" which I've ever heard (and I considered myself immensely luck to have been able to listen to it six nights in a row). This redemption is further echoed in the following bass aria "The Trumpet Shall Sound," as well as the Alto and Tenor duet "O death where is thy Sting?" and the final soprano aria "If God Be For Us," all of which were deeply moving in their own ways and whose emotions were compellingly conveyed by the soloists in their final scenes.

I'm also quite surprised to notice that the "Amen" was missing from most everyone's reviews. Thanks to the one commenter who said we were "very good." Perhaps it is because I was in the chorus, but I found that finale to be immensely satisfying and quite cathartic as a performer. With the lighting effects as well as the minimal staging (rising, standing with arms outstretched), I'm sure it made a visual impact as well.

Maybe this is just a rant from a chorus member, but it rather astounded me that the focus of reviews on this excellent staging of Messiah centered only on the one or two controversial aspects. I felt that it was unfair to people who had not seen the production to not at least provide a review of the entire piece, especially when this particular review left out comments on an entire act of the production. Dish on the singing or staging all you want, but at least provide a complete and accurate depiction of what occurred.

jfl said...

Thanks to the vigorous commenting, no doubt, this article is now a proud #5 on Google if you type in Handel, Messiah, and Bondage.

jfl said...

P.S. (Although why anyone would do that, except to check for that very odd fact, I do not know.)

Anonymous said...

A tiny response to all this muckity-muck...

Anonymous said...

I also agree that the reviewers focus on 8 minutes of a 2 1/2 hour production, a somewhat inaccurate representation of the theme as a whole.