Handel’s Messiah Comes to the West End With Too Many Trimmings

Gregory Battleer conducts The English Chamber Orchestra and The London Symphony Choir in a one-off performance of Handel’s Messiah at Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Handel’s Messiah can always be relied upon to project us into the Christmas holidays. It is astonishing to think that an age-old oratorio, written in 1741, is still being performed in churches and concert halls up and down the country and that its popularity shows no signs of waning.

Over the years, I’ve attended many Handel Messiahs, the most memorable being a beautifully conceived Messiah in miniature with just ten singers who doubled up as both soloists and choir. With harpsichord and just a clutch of period instruments for accompaniment, they managed to recreate what I imagined to be that unique baroque sound.

On the 6th December this year, I attended a very different Messiah: Handel’s Messiah The Live Experience, in the West End. Staged by events company Immersive Everywhere, it was billed as a new classical experience.

Reading the programme, I could see that Gregory Batsleer, Artistic Director of the ‘Live Experience’ was a man with a mission:’We can’t continue to make the performance of this music (ie Handel’s Messiah) a precious museum piece’. What he meant is that while wishing to honour Handel’s beautifully rich score by employing the best musicians and singers in the land, Batsleer had commissioned a new staging, which would shed new light on the work and make it more accessible and appealing to new audiences.

Tenor Nicky Spence with soprano Danielle de Niese headed up the soloists with two young artists with solid opera credentials, mezzo soprano Idunnu Münch and baritone-bass Cody Quattlebaum. To complement this starry line up, the English Chamber Orchestra and London Symphony Chorus were to perform, together with dancers and narrators

The Symphony Chorus, who have the bulk of the singing to do in this two and a half-hour long oratorio, did not disappoint. Their crisp delivery warmed the heart as did the world-class London Chamber Orchestra, who delivered that joyful, pristine sound we associate with Handel’s masterpiece.

Meanwhile Nicky Spence appeared on stage in three short, sparkling spurts, long enough for us to enjoy his tenor and his remarkable diction. Danielle de Niese (who in recent years has broadened her singing repertoire to include musicals) was an unusual choice to sing this oratorio. Her soprano, though deliciously sweet in the higher register, sounded a little brash at times in the lower. Idunnu Münch and American Cody Quattlebaum, impressed, Quattlebaum with his ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage’ and Münch’s mournful mezzo in He was despised.

The lighting effects were unfortunately a disappointment. Part of the problem was the position of the tall flat screen positioned centre stage and the brightness of the effects, which were dazzling at times and a distraction. One more successful moment featured Münch singing her poignant aria- He was despised The screen, which hitherto had conjured fire, the universe and amorphous forms, suddenly quieted and became minimalistic, displaying a series of sharp interconnecting lines. Swords and crucifixes spun around to the music with menace.

The stage, packed with singers and musicians, provided little room for the three dancers to explore the space comfortably. The most satisfying moment was the beautiful ouverture, when the stage was momentarily cleared of soloists. This allowed the dancers to interlock fetchingly. All credit to lead dancer Jemima Brown, who throughout the performance, displayed exceptional control and intensity. She was quite riveting to watch.

Dancer Jemima Brown

The impassioned narrators who were brought in to recite poetry on hope, sacrifice and redemption added little to the original drama of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection.

A laudable musical experiment which would benefit from workshopping.


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