Thursday 20 December 2018

Messiah in Berlin: Handel's oratorio staged in the Philharmonie

Handel: Messiah - Ahmed Soura - Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Kai Bienert)
Handel: Messiah - Tim Mead, Ahmed Soura -
Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Photo Kai Bienert)
Handel Messiah; Louise Alder, Magdalena Kožená, Tim Mead, Allan Clayton, Florian Boesch, dir: Frederic Wake-Walker, Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, cond: Robin Ticciati; Berliner Philharmonie. Berlin Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 15 December 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The realisation of Handel’s Messiah by English-born opera director, Frederic Wake-Walker, added a new dimension to the overall pleasure and enjoyment of this renowned and well-loved choral work

Composed in 1741 to a text taken from King James’ Bible by Charles Jennens and the Book of Common Prayer, Messiah was first heard in Dublin on 13 April 1742 at the Great Music Hall on Fishamble Street receiving its London première the following year. After an initially modest public reception, the oratorio gained in popularity and duly became one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works of all time.

A literary scholar, editor of Shakespeare’s plays and an admirer of Handel’s work Jennens received his education from Balliol College, Oxford. Before working on Messiah, however, he previously collaborated with Handel on Saul and L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il moderato.

Although Handel was born in Germany in Halle (a short distance from Leipzig) in 1685, he moved to London in 1713 and remained here until his death in 1759. Over almost a 50-year time-span he transformed London’s experience of music be it through his operas, his English oratorios (a genre he invented), his celebratory anthems or his charitable performances.

However, if Messiah - which was originally intended as a thought-provoking work for Eastertide but eventually became more of a Christmastide tradition - took time to find its feet, it was a totally different story in respect of Rinaldo which audiences took to their hearts from the outset. It was the first Italian-language opera written specifically for the London stage and first performed at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, on 24th February 1711. Handel, in fact, composed Rinaldo quickly (and, indeed, Messiah, too - just 24 days) borrowing and adapting music from operas and other works that he had composed during his years in Italy from 1706 to 1710. 

Handel: Messiah - Allan CLayton, Ahmed Soura - Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Kai Bienert)
Handel: Messiah - Allan Clayton, Ahmed Soura -
Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Photo Kai Bienert)
Therefore, in so many ways Messiah does resemble that of opera over its three imposing sections. The first part chronicles the prophecies of Isaiah moving to the annunciation of the shepherds (the only scene taken from the Gospels) while in part two Handel concentrates on the Passion ending with the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. In the final part he covers the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification into heaven.

But adding extra emphasis to this well-loved work, performed at Berlin's Philharmonie on Saturday 15 December 2018, the enterprising and thoughtful English-born opera director and artistic director of London-based Mahagony Opera Group, Frederic Wake-Walker (now based in Berlin), conjured up some interesting stage movement (perhaps he should set Rinaldo in his sights) which added greatly to the overall pleasure of the performance given by Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the RIAS Kammerchor under the baton of Robin Ticciati who gathered together a strong and formidable team of soloists. They comprised Louise Alder (soprano), Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Tim Mead (counter-tenor), Allan Clayton (tenor) and Florian Boesch (bass). 

You couldn’t get a better team!

And neither could you get a better team of orchestral players than those in the ranks of the DSO, a superb ensemble (on this occasion admirably led by Wei Lu) whose members found themselves playing on gut-strings for the first time and, indeed, working for the first time, I should imagine, in reverse order to their normal stage position. Therefore, the conductor found himself facing towards the main part of the auditorium thereby offering an extra special treat to those members of the audience who gather round the back of the stage area seated behind the chorus - they could see the orchestra in full view as never before.

Handel: Messiah - Tim Mead, Louise Alder, RIAS Kammerchor - Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Kai Bienert)
Handel: Messiah - Tim Mead, Louise Alder, RIAS Kammerchor
Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Photo Kai Bienert)
A divided chorus was suitably positioned on opposite sides of the stage which was dominated by a wide circular dais (representing the Universe?) illuminated by a set of eight glaring white strips of neon-lit tubing highlighting its circumference conjured up by lighting designer, Ben Zamora, whilst the overall stage picture was completed by a further two dozen tubes hanging heavenwards to the Galactic Clusters. The five soloists mainly occupied the space surrounding the circle while West African-born, Berlin-based dancer, Ahmed Soura, was seen within the circle re-enacting passages from the Bible in keeping with the subject-matter of the libretto.

The authoritative passage ‘Why do the nations’ was sung with grit and determination by the earthy bass voice of Florian Boesch conveying his raging anger convincingly and violently to Herr Soura (seen as the enemy, an outsider or even the Messiah - who knows?) which gave way to Allan Clayton’s forceful delivery of ‘Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron’ followed by the famous ‘Hallelujah’ chorus proudly and handsomely sung by the well-drilled RIAS Kammerchor under the direction of English-born singer and former member of the choir of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, Justin Doyle, while the house lights were slowly illuminated to witness Herr Soura being uncovered from under a large quantity of crumbled white paper (representing a cloud formation?) to be clothed in a Marian-blue cloak as if rising up in majesty to the table of the Lord.

Handel: Messiah - Florian Boesch, Ahmed Soura  - Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Kai Bienert)
Handel: Messiah - Florian Boesch, Ahmed Soura
Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Photo Kai Bienert)
The final part of Messiah witnessed a wonderful and moving reading of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ sung with great passion and tenderness by Louise Alder, whose distinctly clear and bright soprano voice radiated round the vastness of the Berlin Philharmonie in a strong and fulfilling way with the bass voice of Herr Boesch once again heard so strongly in ‘The trumpet shall sound’ featuring the perfect pitch of soloist, Falk Maertens.

And harbouring a warm mezzo-soprano voice, Magdalena Kožená was heard to good effect in the duet with Louise Alder ‘He shall feed His flock’ with Ahmed Soura (representing the Christ-like figure) being cradled tenderly in Ms Kožená’s arms reminiscent of The Pietà depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus while Tim Mead showed his prowess and the delicate art form of the counter-tenor in the reading of that sprightly and impassioned duet that is one of the highlights of part three ‘O death, where is thy sting?’ shared with the tenor, Allan Clayton. They perfectly complemented each other’s voice.

Throughout Messiah, Handel employs a technique called ‘text painting’ in which musical notes mimic the lines of the text. For instance, in the passage ‘Glory to God’ the sopranos, altos and tenors sing the main line ‘Glory to God in the highest’ highly and triumphantly as if in heaven followed by the bass and baritone line ‘and peace on earth’ sung in low tones as if their feet are firmly planted on the ground. This technique has been in use since the days of Gregorian chant and it is an orderly way to convey meaning and provide emphasis to certain words or phrases and within this context the RIAS Kammerchor produced a clear and accurate reading of this wonderful passage that was simply delightful to hear especially within the confines of the Berlin Philharmonie sporting such good acoustics.

Overall, Mr Wake-Walker’s direction complemented well the text and his staging worked well with members of the chorus singing off music-stands with their hands regimentally by their sides but towards the end of the work their approach proved casual and more informal and they were seen singing from hand-held scores which, I felt, epitomised an evangelical-type act of worship. And when a lone figure arrives during the final bars dressed as a back-packer, he’s soon seen off. Who was he? A refugee! The Messiah! Whoever!

Handel: Messiah - Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Kai Bienert)
Handel: Messiah - Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Photo Kai Bienert)
The quality of the performance - comfortably controlled by Maestro Ticciati - proved a feast for the eyes and, indeed, the soul, finding great favour with a packed and appreciative house who at curtain-call roared their approval of Mr Wake-Walker’s bold realisation of this universally-known work that lies at the heart of the vast choral repertoire.
Reviewed by Tony Cooper

Historical note: The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (DSO) harbours a rich and glorious past and was founded in 1946 as the RIAS Symphony Orchestra. Renamed the Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin in 1956 it has worked under its current title since 1993. Previous music directors have included the likes of Ferenc Fricsay, Lorin Maazel, Riccardo Chailly, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Kent Nagano, Ingo Metzmacher and Tugan Sokhiev.

Handel’s Messiah
Louise Alder (soprano)
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Tim Mead (counter-tenor)
Allan Clayton (tenor)
Florian Boesch (bass)
RIAS Kammerchor (chorus master: Justin Doyle)Ahmed Soura (dancer/choreographer)
Ben Zamora (lighting designer)
Frederic Wake-Walker (stage direction)
Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
conducted by Robin Ticciati
Berliner Philharmonie
Elsewhere on this blog:
  • A triumphal Messiah: Andrew Arthur and the Hanover Band at Kings Place  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Towards the Global Jukebox - feature article
  • Echoes of Parsifal: songs and piano music by Robin Holloway on Delphian (★★★½) - CD review
  • Clarinettist dedications: Roeland Hendrikx in three contrasting concertos for clarinet (★★★½)  - CD review
  • Carols and more: Our annual Christmas disc round-up - CD review
  • Reviving Mozart in Wales & family connections in Milton Keynes: I chat to conductor Damian Iorio - my interview
  • Chocolate covered fairy-tale: Hänsel und Gretel at Covent Garden (★★★½) - opera review
  • Joyous discovery: Alessandro Scarlatti's Messa per il Santissimo Natale (★★★★)  - concert review
  • Powerful memorial: composer Andrew Smith on his Requiem dedicated to the victims of the 2011 Utøya massacre in Norway  - interview
  • Christmas in Leipzig: Solomon's Knot in Bach, Schelle & Kuhnau (★★★★) - concert review
  • Winter Fragments: Chamber music by Michael Berkeley (★★★½) - CD review
  • Intimate delight: 18th century chamber cantatas from Tim Mead, Louise Alder & Arcangelo - (★★★★½)  concert review
  • A new record label, a new disc: I chat to Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka about bel canto and more  - interview
  • French Collection: 18th century harpsichord music (★★★½) - CD review
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