The oratorio presented last weekend in two performances by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir directed by Paul Dyer was distinctive in far more ways than its scheduling outside of the conventional Christmas season. It will no doubt become known as the Brandenburg’s Messiah, and with good reason.
The structural differences are the most obvious to talk about: a total of two hours of music, not three, arranged into four sections, with the headings: darkness to light, the dream, shame and mourning, ecstatic light. The program included evocative paintings to underline the mood of each of the sections, but this performance was all about what was happening on the stage … and there was much to take in. The music naturally dominated the performance and it would be a very critical listener who did not feel very satisfied with what they heard, however different it might have seemed from Handel’s hugely popular work.
The choir was beautifully trained and well disciplined, articulating the important words with clarity and injecting the performance with feeling and passion. As Australia’s best known and biggest dedicated Baroque orchestra, The Brandenburgs were in an enviable position to accompany this work, and under Dyer’s careful direction they literally did not miss a beat. It was important that the interpretation and performance of the work was true to conventions of the period as other liberties had been taken. As always, however, the Brandenburg Orchestra gave so much more than a dry authentic rendition of Handel’s work; their love and respect for it was all-pervasive.
From the audience’s perspective the Brandenburg’s Messiah had the feel of a simple play or possibly even dance performance, largely because of the way the singers grouped on stage, generally but not always with others of the same voice. This, and simple costumes suggestive of the times when Christ carried out his ministry on earth, lent a. dramatic element to proceedings. This was particularly effective in “crowd scenes” when the music and words suggested people watching and reacting to Him.
The device of having one man blindfolded and crouching on centre stage for a long period suggested the Passion of Christ in a way that is normally only conveyed by the music. Interestingly, the soloists were not given distinctive roles in a similar manner, but sang their usual solos in the traditional way. All four were chosen well for their ability to satisfy an audience which knew and loved every aria and recitative, the choice of a countertenor (Nicholas Spanos) lending further authenticity to Dyer’s vision for the work. (As did all the altos being male, as they would have been in 18th century performance.)
Spanos, from Greece, like the Australian bass, David Greco, enjoyed the striking dark looks that seemed to be appropriate for this production, (although musically the American tenor Kyle Bielfield lost nothing for being blond!). As for the leading lady, Lucia Martin-Carton, her credentials were beyond question, being Spanish born and trained. In the later part of the work, having changed into a red evening dress, the soprano insinuated onto the stage bringing with her a sexuality not usually associated with religious works. Her voice was so gloriously rich and supple that it seemed to match.
Although it might seem flippant or irrelevant, this might be the moment to express my only question about choices for the staging of this work. The costumes did not have a clear intention and some (the male soloists’ and conductor’s jackets) had no connection with each other or the chorus’s costumes. The point of everyone including the conductor having bare feet was quite lost on this reviewer.
However, this is a minor point in a major work which delighted in the expected ways, with glorious singing from soloists and choruses alike, and masterly accompaniment from the orchestra including in rapid polyphony such as the final “Worthy is the Lamb” and Amen. And to answer the inevitable question: did the audience stand for the Hallelujah chorus? No they did not, but rose to their feet as one at the conclusion of the work. The Brandenburg’s Messiah had been judged a success – and no wonder!