Messiah

Handel
The Merry Opera Company
Rotherhithe Church, (Touring)
(2011)

Merry Opera Messiah

Handel’s Messiah has become standard fare for the festive repertoire, but Merry Opera’s imaginative new staging is anything but predictable. John Ramster‘s (director) addition of back-stories for each character creates exciting new depths and colour to the arias.

Ramster states that the central story of the show is, “birth, death and resurrection”. However he goes further than this and with his creation of individual personalities, allowing us to examine the reasons behind faith. The characters aren’t stereotypes, and since they only sing of the Messiah rather than reflective arias the audience is challenged to create their own interpretations. This performance is engaging because it isn’t handed to you on a plate.

Characters initially appear disjointed, as if each visiting the church for the first time. As the show progresses they become more unified, as a congregation supporting one another. The second half reflects this unity in their costume: they all return in somber black funeral apparel before changing again into white when singing of the Messiah’s victory over death.

The cast is constantly on the move, traipsing up and down aisles whilst singing. This energises the work and is in stark contrast to the ensemble sections where the cast finally root themselves and deliver in static unison. Even this is accompanied by cleverly choreographed arm gestures. These evangelical moments are performed with passion.

Ramster injects just the right amount of light heartedness into the show. When the angel Gabriel appears, a paper plate is flicked up behind her head. Glenn Tweedie strips off under a cassock onstage, transforming himself from mourning dress to the bright white uniform of resurrection. Ramster also plays with the delivery, at times soloists preach standing on wooden boxes as if in speakers corner. Counter-tenor John Lattimore is pitiful in his mournful delivery of ‘he was despised’, and this is introverted, private anguish rather than the call to action of others.

The vocal standard varied slightly amongst the cast but on the whole it was secure with exciting coloratura. Stephen Hose’s (musical director) decision to use only twelve powerful soloists rather than the traditional Messiah chorus of fifty plus singers certainly paid off. It worked beautifully in the intimate church setting, especially when the cast surrounded the audience from all sides creating a wall of sound with the power to move every spectator.

Amongst the cast, there was a stellar performance from Clare Presland, appearing as a nervous young woman, dressed in a tracksuit and shying away from contact. This all changed at her aria, when you realised it wasn’t nerves but religious anguish. She sang with damnation for others, as if none of them believed like her. Her acting ability was matched with a fabulous rich tone, and soaring colaratura.

The features of the direction that first take the audience by surprise would appear normal in the opera house rather than the traditional church oratorio setting. It is a testament to the group that they can inject their operatic freedom from convention into a work bound up in tradition, where the audience are far less intimate with the performers. By the end of this intimate performance it feels like you’ve gone on a spiritual journey with the cast and truly experienced the gruelling process of birth, death and resurrection.

Touring again April/May 2012:
April 7th Tunbridge Wells, Kent
April 15th Tonbridge, Kent
April 28th Staplehurst, Kent
April 29th Broadstairs, Kent

Reviewer: Louise Lewis