“He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra stage Handel’s Messiah.
It’s a momentous occasion, a season opening concert, and what better than to launch with the masterpiece that is George Frideric Handel’s Messiah.
I nearly didn’t believe the publicity material that claimed the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra had not ever performed “this most performed of classical works”, but Paul Dyer was waiting for the right time. And a showpiece it was. I have never seen Messiah in a ‘staged’ performance, only ever with formal choirs of varying sizes and soloists sitting and standing for their required solos. This time the ABO hired Constantine Costi to add drama, movement and space in a performance like no other.
An oratorio, such as Handel’s Messiah, is indeed meant to be a dramatic work and the ABO gave it a red hot go. The staging, with black dramatic drapes, theatrically strewn furniture and great lighting certainly created a space that was not the usual for an ABO concert. The orchestra, in black and mostly with their shoes off (just one musician had to be doing his own thing) and the chorus in floaty white dresses and loose white shirts and black trousers added to the drama. The four soloists were also dressed not in the usual formal wear, with the soprano soloist Lucía Martín-Cartón looking stunning in a number of beautiful gowns.
Costi and Dyer have reimagined the usual three-part oratorio into four ‘scenes’, the drama on stage for each scene inspired by an artwork from the Baroque period – Darkness to Light; The Dream; Shame and Mourning; and Ecstatic Light. The orchestra were also positioned differently tonight with the violins and violas flat across the front of the orchestra and a second line of celli, base, continuo and winds. Trumpets and timpani were added later to the front near Dyer’s harpsichord. The sound was generally great but not all of the orchestra were entirely comfortable with the new arrangement as it looked tricky for Shaun Lee-Chen to lead from the ‘first desk’ so to speak. A couple of premature articulations, but I’m sure opening night jitters will be gone by the next performance.
The chorus’s opening tune ‘And the glory of the God’, sung without scores, made me think I was really watching a staged oratorio. A great start and fantastic singing, but some difficult stage positions throughout meant later chorus tunes were a little awkward when the chorus were singing from scores and also trying to watch Dyer’s conducting from a screen a little too high for comfort.
Although we had on stage some superb international talent – the likes of Nicholas Spanos, Kyle Bielfield and Lucía Martín-Cartón, the star soloist of tonight’s performance was local baritone David Greco. The man can sing, act and near terrify the audience when he appeared in the second half of tonight’s performance on the second level of City Recital Hall, side of stage. A true storyteller.
Respite from the fear of Greco’s solo ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together’ came with the crowd pleaser we were all waiting to hear – the Hallelujah Chorus. To see a chorus, resplendent now with red scarves, running through the aisles and leaping to the stage just in time for the first hallelujah was near comical but fantastic. Interestingly only half the audience followed King George II’s now famous ‘standing in ceremony’, if that is actually a true story. This soon followed by my favourite tune from the Messiah – sung by our baritone soloist but in a beautiful duet with the baroque trumpet Leanne Sullivan with the most swoonable cadenza of the night.
Overall a great first performance and in time a great staged performance of this most famous of all oratorios.
The concert is repeated on Friday 24 February, Wednesday 1 March, Friday 3 March, and Saturday 4 March in Sydney. Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 February in Melbourne. Tickets available on Australian Brandenburg Orchestra website.
Handel’s Messiah, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra | Wednesday 22 February 2017 | City Recital Hall, Sydney