This being the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death, it’s been a bumper year for productions of his operas. But the boldest anniversary celebration may be scraping in at the year’s end. ENO hopes to crown its reputation as Britain’s “house of Handel” by dramatising his oratorio Messiah.
Is this wise? Messiah is a national treasure. Its tunes are remembered, or half-remembered, by millions. And it’s worth recalling that Messiah arose out of Handel’s desire to get away from the opera house and focus on oratorios; putting it back in the opera house seems somewhat perverse. There’s also the problem that the Messiah is not like a Bach Passion—it doesn’t tell a tightly circumscribed narrative. It sweeps across the whole of Christ’s life story and into the Book of Revelation, and much of the story is rendered in the “foretelling” mode of the Old Testament.
Still, the dramatic thrust is clearly discernible, and there are recent precedents for dramatising oratorios. Jonathan Miller’s St Matthew Passion was generally held to be a triumph. Deborah Warner’s St John Passion had a more mixed response, but there were telling ideas, such as having the chorales sung by an amateur chorus representing “the people.” Warner is a director who has a way of revealing the raw emotion at the heart of whatever she touches. In opera, this sometimes comes as a rude shock. But it has yielded wonderful things, such as her recent Glyndebourne production of Fidelio, which revealed the ethical ambiguities at the heart of something that strives so hard to be black-and-white.
Warner says she’s only interested in texts which frighten and alarm her—which may well frighten and alarm anyone who loves Messiah for its power to console and uplift. But let’s see. If nothing else, this production will shake the dust off a monument and invite us to listen with fresh ears.
Messiah, English National Opera,
27th November-11th December,
Tel: 0871 911 0200, www.eno.org
This article first appeared in the December edition of Prospect magazine