Handel’s Messiah is an institution that has been terrorizing audiences and musicians alike for centuries. An 1891 performance at the Handel Festival in London found an exasperated George Bernard Shaw, balking at the over 4,000 (reportedly) musicians that crowded the stage. “Why,” he wondered in his subsequent review, “does not somebody set up a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance … with a chorus of twenty capable artists? Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die.”
While the Handel and Haydn Society has done its part to madden critics like Shaw (early 19th-century performances of Messiah employed an ensemble boasting no fewer than 100 choristers), more recent performances by Handel and Haydn have viewed the oratorio less as an annual act of barbarism and more as a sophisticated canvas to illustrate the considerable palette of nuance and detail available to the ensemble.
Although initially concerned with the direction of the work, I was soon won over by Harry Christophers’ dramatic read. Of Handel’s oratorios, Messiah seems the least theatrical. While works like Judas Maccabeus or Theodora seem one stage director short of full-fledged operas, maybe because of its place in oratorio tradition, Messiah seems less fanciful, more grounded.
But why not give in to theatrical pressures? In Friday’s performance, Christophers and instrumentalists may as well have occupied an orchestra pit as soloists absent-mindedly wandered to and from the center of stage during instrumental preludes — more as opera scene than oratorio. Antiphonal trumpets strategically placed in the balconies of Boston’s Symphony Hall announced Handel’s heavenly host in proclaiming “Glory to God in the highest.” The roiling second portion of the oratorio underwent significant (but — alas — necessary) cuts that resulted in an emphasis of a building tension throughout the section that released itself in the concluding “Hallelujah” chorus. The third and final section found a serenity and a satisfying conclusion to the pyrotechnics of the evening.
Significant work by soloists ensured a theatrical reading of Messiah. Strong singing by soprano Sarah Coburn and baritone Tyler Duncan conveyed solid readings of some standard arias of the repertoire. Tenor Tom Randle, in particular, gave moving, dramatic renditions — certainly a formidable vocal force, Randle illustrated his arias with an affective disquiet, more a discourse than a performance. Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, albeit a smaller, more supple voice by its very nature, ran a breath-taking gamut from a crackling performance of “But who may abide” to a sublime serenity in “He was despised.”
This dramatic approach to Messiah, although frankly exciting, also entailed some significant drawbacks. Tempi, though always vivacious, sometimes felt rushed. This may have appeared as a matter of taste for arias such as “He was despised,”or “I know that my Redeemer Liveth” and beloved accompagnati such as “Behold I tell you a mystery,” “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart,” or the opening “Comfort ye.” But Christophers’ zealous drive took a very real toll on the melismatic arias and—perhaps most noticeably (and unfortunately)—on the horn during the Hallelujah chorus.
Yet despite questionable decisions regarding tempo, both orchestra and choir responded well to Christophers’ leadership. In this period instrument performance, he led a flexible ensemble that is not only capable, but exacting and fine-tuned. It responded well to his vision of the work. Handel and Haydn’s choir also showed itself in fine form on Friday evening, particularly in illustrating Handel’s intricate counterpoint with bold, delineated entrances.
As a historic edifice, Messiah conjures both dread and elation, yet Handel and Haydn’s role in the Boston holiday tradition happily places the piece in the latter category. This elegant, thoughtful presentation of Handel’s significant work evening proved a powerful antithesis to GB Shaw’s horrors — just as wished for by the playwright.