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Twelve Days of Christmas: Messiah According to Guth

available at Amazon
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
There seems to be no limit to the creative approaches to Handel's evergreen oratorio Messiah. Add to the list this frankly bizarre staging of the work by German director Claus Guth, recorded live at the Theater an der Wien in April 2009. Without any changes to the words or even the order of pieces, Guth tries to tell a completely unrelated story (credit shared with Konrad Kuhn and Christian Schmidt -- the latter also designed the sets and costumes) through gesture while the singers are talking about someone saving the world, who is nowhere to be found on stage. The soloists are all members of the same family mourning the death -- a suicide, we quickly discover -- of one of their members. In the opening scene, a funeral, one of the brothers (bass Florian Boesch) rises angrily, singing the first bass solo ("Thus saith the Lord"), and opens the casket to show the corpse's slit wrists. Boesch later encounters the ghost of the dead man (dancer Paul Lorenger), who becomes the stand-in for the suffering Jesus. He is a sort of executive Christ, whose business torments are represented by him checking his pens and cellphone, and he later undergoes fiduciary torture at the hands of a board of trustees who tear up his financial report. He then throws away his money and American Express gold club cards, a victim seemingly not of Roman law but of the financial crisis.

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.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Just sing and play it as well as in this performance and that's enough. Leave the silly "staging" alone.