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Handel’s Messiah The Live Experience – Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London

Reviewer: Thom Punton

Performers: English Chamber Orchestra with The London Symphony Chorus

Composer: George Frideric Handel

Director: Neil Connolly

Spawned from a company who have been wildly successful with immersive experiences based on richly detailed fictional worlds like Doctor Who, Great Gatsby and Peaky Blinders, Classical Everywhere are entering the territory of immersive classical music with a production of Handel’s Messiah. The oratorio is a rousing perennial favourite, and as such is a perfect candidate for a revamp, but the elements added here to enhance the experience serve mainly to distract, rather than elevate.

There’s a glitzy feel to the aesthetic of the production that recalls Jesus Christ Superstar, but rather than lean into the campness, the stylistic choices remain more at the level of an evangelical megachurch. From the outset, The English Chamber Orchestra and London Symphony Singers are bathed in a gaudy pink glow and there is a screen hanging centre stage displaying projected curves of light. A recorded track of whispering voices is building tension. Then, three figures strut down the aisles towards the stage, where they dance to the instrumental overture. They reappear throughout, sometimes onstage, sometimes in the aisles, like a winky manifestation of the music’s playfulness. Combined with the movement of the projected visuals and the conductor’s graceful gesturing, however, there is too much going on.

The projections are for the most part abstract, forming a bright circle of light at the beginning, which morphs and changes colour. There is the sense that this represents the light of God. It’s a kind of overseeing, creative presence. At times, it’s very similar to the twisting colours of a computer’s screensaver, at others the rapidly spinning rings of fire threaten to induce motion sickness. Most of the time, it just isn’t quite clear whether it’s attempting to represent anything at all in particular. One wonders, for instance, whether the pinkish ripples of colour during For Unto Us A Child Is Born are supposed to be an approximation of what said child sees as He is making His way out of the womb.

Backed by the English Chamber Orchestra and the London Symphony Chorus, the four soloists give excellent performances. The soprano Danielle de Niese is particularly expressive, whilst the baritone-bass Cody Quattlebaum’s tone is warm and commanding. Quattlebaum also creates one of the night’s biggest elephants in the room by looking exactly like a stereotypical Jesus Christ, with his flowing dark hair and beard. He is not the messiah though, because there are no characters in Handel’s oratorio. The soloists play the roles of storytellers, evoking the themes of Jesus’ life rather than acting out the events. One of this production’s innovations is the addition of two characters – a mother and child, who take to the stage to recite poetry that attempts to build on the themes of the piece. As an added perspective, and in the pursuit of theatrical immersion, it makes sense, but these parts are too oblique to warrant the disruption.

One of the goals of Classical Everywhere is to bring classical music out of the stuffy, atmosphere of the concert hall into a high-speed, multimedia modern age. This is certainly an admirable goal. Tonight is a revealing snapshot of how confusing the roles and rules of the concert environment have become. No one knows when to clap anymore. And it often results in what seems like half-hearted applause in the spaces between musical sections.

A further, peculiar example of concert hall etiquette comes into play during the most recognisable part of Handel’s Messiah, the Hallelujah chorus. During this section it is tradition to stand, in reverence to King George II, who rose to his feet (for some reason) when he attended the 1743 premiere. Tonight, when the hallelujahs ring out and the more traditionalist portion of the audience imitate the King, it serves as a reminder that classical music remains for the moment the preserve of the elite. Though it has succeeded in attracting a large crowd to one of London’s most eminent theatres for a performance of a Handel oratorio, the updated “immersive” elements of Handel’s Messiah The Live Experience are not likely to attract anyone who wouldn’t have gone to see it in one of its vanilla incarnations.

Reviewed on 6 December 2022

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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One Comment

  1. I attended the performance and really enjoyed it. The reviewers point that sections of the audience not being aware that there is a tradition of standing at the ‘Hallelujah chorus’ is proof that classical music is the ‘preserve of the elite’, is plain daft. Why not following the unwritten code at this point would impact the enjoyment of the unwashed masses (as the reviewer implicitly views them) needs to be explained to me. Those ‘in the know’ then sat down and on we went. A great evening and I hope it becomes an annual occasion.

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