Composer: George Frideric Handel
Conductor: Ben Glassberg
Messiah was composed by George Frideric Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, first performed in 1742. Since then, it has been a staple of the choral repertoire.
In a simple staging designed to combine church and opera, there is an exposed orchestra pit where we see the musicians being skilfully led by Ben Glassberg, which is a treat as the orchestra would usually be hidden. While this is a lovely touch, our view of the musicians is still restricted more than had they, for example, been placed onstage.
The stage is set out in a format reminiscent of a secondary school recital, complete with noisy folding chairs. These can shatter the atmosphere as they are noisy as the choir settles back down after a piece and the whole is flat visually. The Glyndebourne Choir is, however, undoubtedly talented and creates an exceptional wall of sound: the vocal performances are uniformly excellent and orchestral sound is flawless. The choir is arranged in groups according to vocal range and it is pleasing to the ear to hear each of these groups in canon throughout. There are some truly impressive musical moments, in particular, when the choir is in full voice, with the Hallelujah Chorus being a climactic moment in terms of the sound created on stage.
With the music being based around scriptural texts, it can be difficult to understand the wording at times, but this doesn’t take away from the beauty of the music and the singing. At the top of the proscenium arch, a projector does show the main sentence for each musical phrase which makes following the narrative far easier.
The soloists are, without exception, strong singers. Anthony Gregory has a strong stage presence and rich tenor voice with a strong vibrato, while bass James Platt delivers a powerful sound in the lower registers. Carrie-Anne Williams has a gorgeous soprano voice, hitting the top notes with effortless skill in an ethereal performance. Stephanie Wake-Edwards, the mezzo-soprano, showcases an impressive vocal range.
Paradoxically, it’s the attempts to make the show a theatrical experience that let it down. The lighting, for example, is a real issue throughout the performance as the choir is backlit with piercing white, green and yellow light projected onto a screen. This is reminiscent of being blinded by full-beam headlights whilst driving at night and is uncomfortable to view for the length of time that it is projected for. The start of the second act has a simple black screen and a more subtly lit choir which is not only more aesthetically interesting, but it also allows for immersion into the music without additional distraction. There is also something of a disconnect between the soloists and the choir: this may be due to the separation in the staging but it doesn’t feel altogether harmonious to the audience.
So overall something of a curate’s egg: aurally, a stunning performance let down by some issues around the staging.
Reviewed on: 11 November 2021 and touring