Saturday 16 December 2023

A sense of dramatic narrative: Wild Arts in Handel's Messiah at The Art Workers' Guild

Handel: Messiah - Wild Arts at The Art Workers' Guild (Photo: Lucy Toms Photography)
Handel: Messiah - Wild Arts at The Art Workers' Guild (Photo: Lucy Toms Photography)

Handel: Messiah; Wild Arts, Joanna Songi, Sofia Kirwan-Baez, Martha Jones, Catherine Backhouse, Richard Dowling, Harry Jacques, Timothy Nelson, Edward Hawkins, music director Orlando Jopling; The Art Workers Guild
Reviewed 14 December 2023

With just eight singers and solos performed 'off the book', this was performance that made up in a vivid sense of drama what it might have lacked in numbers to create a compelling and wonderfully engaged performance

My first thought, on receiving the invitation, was how on earth are they going to fit it in? But with a remarkable amount of imagination, Wild Arts presented Handel's Messiah at The Art Workers Guild in London on Thursday 14 December 2023. Orlando Jopling, artistic director of Wild Arts, directed an instrumental ensemble from the organ and they were joined by eight soloists, Joanna Songi, Sofia Kirwan-Baez, Martha Jones, Catherine Backhouse, Richard Dowling, Harry Jacques, Timothy Nelson, and Edward Hawkins.

Handel: Messiah - Jonny Byers, Orlando Jopling, Richard Dowling - Wild Arts at The Art Workers' Guild (Photo: Lucy Toms Photography)
Handel: Messiah - Jonny Byers, Orlando Jopling, Richard Dowling - Wild Arts at The Art Workers' Guild (Photo: Lucy Toms Photography)

Sofia Kirwan-Baez and Harry Jacques were two of Wild Arts' 2023 Young Artists in the Summer production of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore [see my review] and a third Young Artist from that production, Rebecca Milford, appeared in another guise, in her role as Education Manager for Wild Arts.

The eight soloists shared the solos between them, all singing in the choruses. Solos were done from memory, with the choruses using scores. They were accompanied by an ensemble of five strings, two oboes, bassoon, trumpets, and timpani, directed from the chamber organ by Orlando Jopling. The work was presented in one corner of the room, with a stage area surrounded by the orchestra so that the singers were embedded it, though communication must have been a challenge.

The Hall at The Art Workers' Guild was built in 1914 (when the guild moved into the building) and according to the guild's website it seats 100 (though given the needs of the performance, I suspect we were less than that). Seating was on lovely rush-seated ladder-back chairs, some of which date back to the period of the Hall's creation.

The performance had elements of staging devised during workshops with theatre director Tom Morris. The result added an element of drama or dramatic presentation to the arias whilst avoiding the choreographed-to-death feeling that you can get with works like this. There little sense of movement for the sake of it, and much more a feeling of bringing out the drama. 

Handel: Messiah - Wild Arts at The Art Workers' Guild (Photo: Lucy Toms Photography)
Handel: Messiah - Wild Arts at The Art Workers' Guild (Photo: Lucy Toms Photography)

What worked for me was the idea that each movement (aria or chorus) was a response to what had been expressed or said previously. This might sound obvious, but too often Messiah can simply be a series of memorable moments. Here, the drama seemed to flow and evolve, so that for instance after the chorus 'Behold the Lamb of God' which opened Part II, Catherine Backhouse seemed to simply emerge from the chorus and turn that general contemplation into something personal for 'He was despised', with the choruses that come after feeling like group response.

Now, this is not an approach to Messiah that would work for me every time, but in terms of bringing the work to life on a small scale whilst avoiding any sense of a cut-down version, this was a winner. The performance on 14 December was the third of four in a short tour to London and Sussex, ending on the company's home turf of Layer Marner Tower in Essex. As such, the production felt well bedded in and whilst there was the odd wobble in ensemble due to sight lines, the whole felt very natural and engaging, really drawing us in. 

Bear in mind that even on the third row, we were very close to the performers. The sound was strong and vivid, in what proved to be quite a lively acoustic. In the choruses we had the sense of a vocal ensemble, with eight distinct voices rather than choral blend and with the singers so engaged, this created something stimulating.

Sofia Kirwan-Baez sang the Angelic sequence in Part One, vividly engaging and a very human narrator, then in 'Rejoice greatly' her excitement could be barely contained, and was combined with fine passagework. Joanna Songi made 'How beautiful are the feet' into something remarkably bleak, rather than being too comfortable. She gave a lovely sense of uncertainly to 'I know that my Redeemer liveth' as if she was trying to convince herself, and the result became quite intense.

Martha Jones was very direct in 'Behold a Virgin shall conceive', 'O thou that tellest' and 'Then shall the eyes of the blind', with a concentration on the meaning of the words. In a dignified account of 'But who may abide', Catherine Backhouse gave the words a sense of ongoing dialogue. She sang 'He was despised' to us, a narrative asking us to be active participants and the middle section was almost uncomfortable-making. 

Harry Jacques made 'Comfort Ye' very dramatically engaged, and gave vivid account of 'Thou shalt break them'. Richard Dowling made 'Ev'ry valley' a real drama, yet was fully equal to the more ornamental passagework. During the terrific choral sequence in Part Two, Dowling brought strength and vividness to the tenor solos

Timothy Nelson combined strong presence with fine passagework in 'Thus saith the Lord', then he made 'Behold, I tell you a mystery' into real drama rather than just the prelude to a famous aria. Edward Hawkins made 'For behold, darkness' remarkably uncomfortable leading to a remarkably alert account on 'The people that walked in darkness'. His vivid account of 'Why do the nations?' had less bluster than usual and was more questioning, and following this interpretation with the chorus 'Let us break their bonds' brought additional sense of drama. Hawkins made 'The trumpet shall sound' into a vivid narrative, rather than a famous aria, particularly effective after the way Nelson had set up the recitative.

This was one of those performances where you went in with polite, supportive expectation and came out won over, having been carried away. The sense of creating a dramatic narrative that the eight singers brought to the music, reacting to events, was palpable. The instrumental support was strong with the small ensemble being fully as alert as the singers.

Handel: Messiah - Wild Arts at The Art Workers' Guild (Photo: Lucy Toms Photography)
Handel: Messiah - Wild Arts at The Art Workers' Guild (Photo: Lucy Toms Photography)

Wild Arts is a young organisation with a long history. The charity was founded in 2022, with Orlando Jopling as artistic director, but builds on the organisation that has presented the Roman River Festival in and around Colchester since 2000. Essex is Wild Arts' prime focus, with a Summer Opera Festival at Layer Marney Tower. The 2024 production is Mozart's The Magic Flute, directed by James Hurley, after the June performances at Layer Marney the company takes it on tour (ten dates already confirmed).

The company is also developing a strong education focus, with the education programme led by Rebecca Milford. For 2022/23, they worked with primary schools in Essex, presenting workshops, lessons and masterclasses leading to 300 primary school pupils attending the dress rehearsal of The Elixir of Love in Essex. And not just attending, they all had learned at least one of the numbers in the opera and evidently were humming along. All the schools that they worked with in 2023 have signed on for 2024, and the company hopes to broaden things further.

Wild Arts 2023 in numbers:

  • 42 performances of the main opera production and opera evenings
  • 37 venues in 17 counties from Cornwall to Lincolnshire
  • Over 6,000 audience members
  • 80% of shows were fully booked
  • 36% of audience members were going to the opera for the first time
  • Four young singers took part in the Young Artists Programme
  • 324 primary school pupils were involved in the education programme

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