ConcertMusicMusicalOperaReviewSouth West

The English Concert: Messiah – Bristol Old Vic

Music/Lyrics: Handel
Director: Tom Morris
Director: Tom Morris
Conductor: Harry Bicket
Reviewer: E. Whitcroft 

It was a night framed by history: the gold fixtures of the oldest working theatre in Britain encircling the performance of a semi-staged Handel’s Messiah. Before Tom Morris’ decision to dramatise Handel’s oratorio for the Bristol Proms in 2013, the Messiah had not been performed at the Bristol Old Vic since 1782. Morris was keen to highlight this lineage as he took to the stage; reinforcing the sense of occasion through historical precedent.

For many, Handel’s Messiah means amateur choristers chirping away during the Christmas season. Rather than conform to a mistaken stereotype, The Bristol Old Vic reinstates Handel’s oratorio to its rightful positioning as a work properly performed at Easter. Morris’ version is dramatised: using metaphoric lighting, carefully chosen props and an actor as ‘the beloved’ this is far from the traditional disembodied vision of liturgical robes and ruffled collars. Devoid of specific characterisations and direct speech, Morris defends his vision on the basis that Handel was a ‘dramatist’ and this is reinforced by the operatic structure of the Messiah. 

On opening night, The English Concert orchestra more than prove their credentials as one of Europe’s leading Baroque orchestras; under the baton of Harry Bicket the orchestra was both dramatically energetic and sensitive in their interpretation. Bicket’s leadership only enhanced by his animated playing at the harpsichord. In particular Nadja Zwiener, as lead violin, is an expressive presence; her performance both lightening quick and touchingly lyrical.

The Erebus Ensemble, a young choir, are thrilling with their ‘off-book’ performance which is full-bodied and vital. As they wander the stage with hands covered in the bright red blood of Christ’s wounds their sense of despair and grief is palpable. Similarly touching is the performance from the youngest member of the cast: Henry Ashbee. Beginning his solo in the audience, he is lifted across the heads of audience members into the arms of the soloists on stage; the image of Ashbee dressed in white surrounded by an anonymous sea of faces and darkness creates a singular vision of innocence. Contrastingly, the striking performance of Brindley Sherratt as he stalks the stage in military boots and dark coat is full of brooding gloom; while, soprano, Julia Doyle becomes the embodiment of tender sweetness and regret.

Theatricality aside, the use of the entire auditorium is one of performance’s main strengths: the seating for audience members on stage, Ashbee’s innocent face spot-lighted in the stalls, the choir’s appearance in the balconies as they sing in and among the audience and the horn’s piercing sweetness played from the highest rafters of the theatre. This direction enables a total immersion in the music and combined with excellent cast performances allowed the power of Handel’s music to soar.

Runs until 9 April 2017 | Image: Contributed

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