The now ancient Handel and Haydn Society, hard pressed to avoid breaking its winning streak of annual Messiah performances, has broken forth in a chimeric Covideo with WGBH. Through prerecorded accompaniment (a la karaoke) to underpin the layers of remote brass and choristers, an interesting sound and light show comes now to our media devices, to mingle in the company of hundreds of traversals of this indestructible masterpiece currently in play over the Worldwide Holiday Web. Take your choice: Messiah lite or a deeper dive.
Clearly this would have to be an undertaking different from the obligatory albeit heartfelt and dramatic annual affair. And since so many today feel like foundlings, the pared-down early version probably made the best impression in our homes. Planning to witness the ministrations of the Lebensraumed H + H Period Orchestra and Chorus over both a 10-ft projection setup tuned to WGBH and a good-sized 4K computer monitor serving up YouTube, we wondered which would better share the meaning and mystery inherent in Handel’s music and Jennens’s conveyance of the Word.
Sorry to say it, but something of a misbegetting resulted from competing priorities in shoehorning an abridgment of Handel’s masterwork into an aspiringly slick product to fill a 55-minute public TV slot. The eye-candy travelogues of Boston, occupying a significant portion of the screen time, strove for relevance but achieved chiefly bathos. “People walking in Darkness” = Sumner Tunnel, “have seen the great light” = Zakim Bridge with colored floodlighting and trailing headlights. And then there were the obligatory Covid victims and lines of people waiting (for no apparent reason) with grocery carts. Why Fenway Park and the Bunker Hill Monument? Harvard Stadium? Stock shots of empty discount shelves?
The visuals also provided equal time to menorahs and mosques and a Buddha so as not to offend … whom? Uptight non-Christians? More likely uptight Christians. Is this how outreach should be done?
All of this while chyrons of coming attractions intermittently scrolled and a digital corporate watermark persisted. Try that at Symphony Hall.
Yes, singers and players in a Fraser Studio red-lit, as if hell on SNL or for the statue scene in Don Giovanni, shared the often-split screen with the ads and bathetic images. As our earlier article [HERE] explained, layering up all the forces (aurally and visually) in this time of distancing entailed tremendous discipline and technical skill, but the techniques commanded almost as much of our attention as the precisely and deftly conveyed music.
Well-chosen Fraser shots changed every few seconds and gracious editing smoothed over any rough joins within the (apparent) multiple takes. But because of all the required manipulation, the live performance qualities of spontaneity, repose, surprise, shaping, and rapture largely went missing in the zeal just to fit all the pieces together perfectly. Worse, it felt really odd how the numbers had to slam together without the least pause for reflection or dramatic sense.
In the penultimate number of Part One, “Come unto Him, all ye that labor, and He will give you rest,” soprano Joélle Harvey, despite being masked, communicated with empathy, refinement, and beauty of tone … but in the blink of an eye “Hallelujah” sprang forth (with of course nary a nod to those 24 intervening numbers which had ended on the cutting room floor).
The sound came across as masked (no surprise), but also congested, and artificially reverberant in the layering manner of trying to get few to sound like many. Dynamic range was compressed to a paltry 15dBA, robbing big numbers of drama; “Hallelujah” with its trumpets and drums sounded little louder than the preceding quiet soprano aria, although part of that may have been due to conductor-harpsichordist Ian Watson’s small ribbed but tasteful approach.
Despite Watson’s livelier tempi for most sections than we would have expected*, he and the engineers’ brought singers and brass into clean agreement with the expert one-on-a-part strings and organ. The chorus got their sibilants and fricatives into perfect, albeit mask-filtered, alignment, but it remained a little distracting see how they relied on earbuds to achieve ensemble perfection. Male alto Reginald Mobley decorated his attractive lines with graceful ornamental devices. Aaron Sheehan proved himself once again to be a resourceful tenor. Baritone Sumner Thomson left us wanting more. But none of the latter three seemed to be projecting beyond the microphone.
Also, the covered visages of all necessarily muted their nonverbal communication.
For a worthy, one-off, lite and lithe attempt to keep faith with its musicians and its followers, H + H and WGBH have authored a very well-played, if strangely illustrated glossy Messiah coloring book. We expect that some people will enjoy it.
The H+H – WGBH Covideo runs free for the next couple of months on YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook.
* In Watson’s interpretation, Part One (minus the final chorus) ran 49 minutes. Timings of 12 examples on YouTube (minus the final chorus) ran from 50 – 65 minutes, averaging 54 minutes. Enthusiasts of music video Messiahs should check out the version staged at the Theater an der Wien HERE; it packs an incredible wallop.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer