I’ve long lost count of the times I’ve been to a performance of Handel’s Messiah. It was a feature of my childhood, with a train trip from the suburbs to London to hear it. I remember everyone stood for the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, a convention which has its own myths surrounding it – well, some people stood and then the others picked up the idea and joined in. But it always came as a surprise to find that this wasn’t the final section.
I went on attending through later years. On one occasion in Liverpool, my housemate and I invited a recently-widowed friend along, without realising that he and his wife had been to hear the Messiah every year of their marriage. Hmmm. Would we have asked him if we’d known? On balance, I think it was OK, although of course he was very emotional.
But in recent years, interpretations of the Messiah have seen some transformations, to the point where I am not sure I am still interested in those large choral performances with which I grew up. I’m not referring here to those innovative ways of singing it on Zoom, as with The Self-Isolation Choir, but to professional performances which were thinking outside the box well before the pandemic.
The first of these transformations, in 2011, came with the Merry Opera Company’s staged Messiah. We’d been to hear them when they came to our town with another show, and were impressed with their energy and their innovative approach to opera. When I heard that they were bringing their Messiah to our town, and not just to our town but to our church building, of course I had to go. I was so impressed, so emotionally overwhelmed by the evening, that I emailed the company to say ‘That was the Messiah I have waited all my life to hear’, a comment they picked up for their marketing!
I’ve since seen this Messiah again, in another local church. It was different, because they use the space they have, with a very simple set: a few boxes. But the context they give to the music is the same: that twelve people who are finding life tough come to a church in the hope of finding some meaning. One is a harassed businessman – has he been sacked? Done a dodgy deal? Another is pregnant: does she want this baby? What has happened – does she have a partner? We are not told, but we see these isolated individuals come together into something which supports them all. They form into groups; they run through the building: they dance; they sing, and they move as they sing. I’m still not sure whether a cast member ran up the wall at our church in 2011; I was at the point where nothing would have surprised me.
And what about the Hallelujah Chorus? I’m glad you asked. It’s on YouTube. By this time the cast have shed their everyday clothes for all-white costumes. And of course there are no scores to hold, allowing lots of joyful arm movement. It’s not stately, it’s simply happy.
In 2018 we saw another Messiah which moved me to tears. This was the Bristol Old Vic performance, which we saw in the cinema. They are showing this until 28 February 2021 via this link. The whole performance is currently free on YouTube (until 5 January) although of course you are invited to make a payment to support the theatre. The theme here is the drama at the centre of the story: we are asked to imagine that Christ has been crucified, and the singers are his followers who loved him deeply, recalling what happened to him and trying to make sense of what it all means. This staging is less physical than the Merry Opera Company’s version, but it is just as intimate and immersive. The trumpet sounds from the circle: a young singer performs from the stalls. The musicians play interwoven with the singers. A key feature is the presence of Christ on stage, as a non-speaking role. And the Hallelujah Chorus? It was chosen as the soundtrack to the trailer, although what you see on-screen is taken from across the evening’s performance. The Chorus itself is sung superbly, with Christ’s bloodied body on stage. Also, and I don’t think this is a spoiler, as the Bristol Old Vic is using this as its key image: it’s sung with all the singers lifting up bloody hands at the end.
Christ – here, known as ‘The Beloved’ – is played in the recorded version by Jamie Beddard, a writer, actor and director with cerebral palsy. He was interviewed here. The idea of Christ having a body that is disabled is very powerful. His passivity, his need for care from the other cast members, is deeply moving. His expressions of pain during ‘And with his stripes we are healed’, as cast members took it in turns to attack him, made me cry. I’d grown up with all those notions of perfection: that a body which was not ‘perfect’ could not be holy. No physical blemishes were allowed. In Leviticus 21, God tells Moses:
No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God.
As Christ is our great high priest, how can his body be ‘blemished’ in any way? Beddard’s performance made me rethink this. He brought Christ’s humanity into focus for me, as ‘A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’.
I’ve just seen the third of the new interpretations I want to mention here. It’s more traditional in form: choirs, soloists, performance. But what is different is that it takes the engagement with inclusion even further. This is the Canadian Messiah/Complex, from Against The Grain Theatre. It opens with a gay Chinese-Canadian tenor, Spencer Britton, singing ‘Comfort Ye’ as he walks across a rainbow-painted street crossing, and it features soloists from a range of ethnic backgrounds, who sing in different languages: English, French, Arabic and various Indigenous languages. The non-English sections have subtitles, but if you know your Messiah these are particularly interesting because, for example, referring to God as ‘Creator’ not as ‘God’ is part of a strong emphasis on the created world – some spectacular Canadian scenery – and on our call to care for it. The intention is to translate in a way which ‘capture[s] the gist of the song rather than its specifics’, as Diyet van Lieshout commented on her translation of ‘O Thou that tellest great tidings’ into Southern Tutchone, helped by her grandmother – one of the only speakers of the language still alive. Some of the transformations are greater than anything you’ll see in the Merry Opera or the Bristol Old Vic productions; a Tunisian-Canadian singer changes ‘He was despised’ to ‘She was despised’ as she recalls her mother’s experience as a Muslim woman in Canada. I’ve seen the production described as ‘polytheistic’ on Christian media; I assume this refers to ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’, superbly sung in Dene in a snowy landscape with a traditional ritual involving smoke; the words ‘land inside, water inside, air inside, earth inside’ don’t feature in Handel, but the calm certainty of the singer’s ‘My creator living, I know’ is very powerful. It’s available online until the end of January 2021.
And then there’s the Hallelujah Chorus. In this piece shot all over Canada, respecting the conventions of covid-safety, it looks utterly traditional, really. Performed by a choir , recorded in a way that met pandemic guidelines, using shower curtains for social distancing, then lip-synced in a park in Toronto.
It is impossible to summarise these three interpretations in a way which captures their essence. If I had to do it, maybe it would be like this:
Merry Opera Company: we need to come together, trust each other and become something more than the sum of our parts.
Bristol Old Vic: grief and pain can become hope.
Against The Grain: cherish the earth. Change is coming.