Saturday, February 19, 2011

Redemption and the human condition

Hello, friends. I want to tell you about something I found this morning that moves me very much although I realize it will not be some folks' cup of tea exactly.

Over on YouTube there are several videos of Handel's Messiah staged in operatic form. It's filmed from a live 2009 performance in Vienna. The various scenes depict the human condition as experienced in various situations - grief, anxiety, despair, confusion, joy, redemption - using symbolic props, movement, dance and sign language for the deaf. I thought I was not going to like it but the more I watched video after video, the more deeply moved I found myself becoming.

It helps that the chorus and orchestra are truly magnificent and the musical interpretation is very much in line with how I've been trained in baroque playing and singing. Nevertheless, one must be willing to experience this as theater - and theater in a very stylized form as well.

Here's one of the simpler scenes:

Here is the first one that I watched:

And here is another one that I think is very moving:

There are more.

In case you don't already know this, you can click on the title of an embedded video and it will take you directly to the where it is posted on the YouTube site. There you will find the others on the sidebar.
UPDATE: I just found the DVD of this production on Amazon right here. Please do click through and read the first review - the one written on Christmas Day. It gives you more information about everything to do with this staged version.


  1. How have I gotten through almost 67 years of life and sung in and listened to Handel’s Messiah many times without ever having learned that a landowner and patron of the arts named Charles Jennens was the librettist who conceived and put together the texts for five of Handel’s oratorio’s? All these years I’ve read again and again how Handel wrote ‘The Messiah’ in only three weeks. Never, in anything I read, was there a mention of Charles Jennens. I therefore understood that Handel conceived of, chose the texts for and composed the scores for the Messiah in three weeks. Don’t get me wrong. I think it was an astounding work of genius that Handel put the libretto to music and wrote the orchestration for The Messiah in three weeks. But the choice of the scripture passages that tell the story told by ‘The Messiah’ was also inspired. I can’t imagine how anyone could have done a better job of choosing passages, from the thousands that could be chosen from scripture, that would tell this “traditional and orthodox” interpretation of salvation history better and with greater inspiration. It seems to me that Jennens hasn’t been given his due in the annals of either music or history for this amazing contribution to both musical literature and biblical interpretation. Indeed I suspect that Handel’s Messiah has probably done more than any number of sermons or writings could have done to instill in people’s minds what has come down to us as “the orthodox interpretation of salvation history.” Indeed ‘The Messiah’ has probably been the greatest advocate for and argument on behalf of the theology of ‘substitutionary atonement’ ever proffered. One testimony to that is that even though many, myself included, who have come to find substitutionary atonement offensive, are nevertheless entranced by both the music and the message of The Messiah.

    Having said that, the one musical composition/play with which I find myself most in tune musically, theologically, spiritually, philosophically and emotionally was written by a non-Christian. Since I provided a two hints would someone want to venture a guess as to the name and composer of that work?

  2. Yes, I knew that Handel used someone else's libretto but I had forgotten Jennens' name if I ever knew it.

    Hmm. I'll need to ponder what work you're talking about here.

    Oh! Would the composer be Leonard Bernstein?

  3. Correct Sr. Ellie

    Now a for a musical and dramatic critique:

    After watching a number of the choruses and one solo I went to Amazon and read several of the reviews of the DVD. Both the lead positive and negative reviews gave raves all around to the musical performances. From the lead positive reviewer: “Let me start by stating that musically this is the best performance of the Messiah that I am ever likely to see or hear. Jean Christoph Spinosi and his award-winning baroque-specializing Ensemble Matheus give an exciting and nuanced orchestral accompaniment to what is happening on stage.” From the lead negative reviewer: “I can say that the singing in this production is impeccable. The fact that it employs only about fifty vocalists rather than a massed or massive choir turns out to be a big plus. The lyrics are crystal clear and beautifully sung.” To both of these reviews I say, “Well said!”

    I believe much of what I found most striking and appealing in the musical interpretation would not have happened without the dramatization. When watching even the best choral groups performing sacred works I too often feel they are technically very fine but emotionally uninvolved with what they are singing. When that happens with a performance of the ‘Messiah’ I definitely find it wanting. However, given my kudos to the musicians, I more often found the drama itself to be distracting. I don’t agree with the puritanical reaction to the idea of the woman’s bedtime preparation. Nor do I sympathize with the offense taken by some that somehow the dramatization is sacrilegious. I believe, however, that I would have found more abstract interpretive dance more interesting and also perhaps a more appropriate augmentation of the musical performance. But, I have to say, that the idea of using the singers as a kind of Greek Chorus to a play worked well. The lighting very well conveyed the moods of the musical compositions, even if the acting and story line didn’t work as well for me.

  4. I assume you're referring to Berstein's, "Life As a Trapeze Artist."

  5. Actually, I was thinking about the theater piece "Mass!", the theater piece by Bernstein --- but that probably represents my outlook more than yours.

    I like your review and it makes complete sense to me. I must say that I found the story line more compelling than I expected to.

  6. "Mass?" Oh yes, that's what I meant to say. : )

  7. Hmm. I guess I didn't get the joke! (What's the trapeze artist bit about?)

  8. Free association? I sometimes do it when I'm feeling playful. Where did "Life as a Trapeze Artist" come from. It was a free association thought. But, if you care to analyze it, I suppose you could find an association between a trapeze artist and Jesus. Both of them are known at times to work solely on faith in another and without a safety net.


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