The last night of the Bristol Proms was experimental. A full house at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre was greeted by artistic director Tom Morris to introduce this semi-staged version of Handel’s Messiah – last performed in the venue in 1782, when it was too sacrilegious for churches. Morris said that Handel was “a dramatist”, and to honour this, he took a more theatrical route with this performance. There were cuts and tweaks made to the music, but it didn’t affect the sentiment of Messiah and all of the singers, impressively, were performing off-book. This was the first rendition of Handel’s Messiah I have seen where the character of Christ was performed by an actor. Rather than the traditional account of the Messiah’s story associated with Christmas, this performance focused on faith created by struggle after devastating loss.
At the start of the performance, a procession of the singers walked on stage with the “dead” Christ on a plinth. They laid flowers on the body, and the patient Tristan Sturrok, who played Christ, lay still centre-stage until he arose at the end of the first half, after being washed by two actresses. His silent role was no less challenging in the second half. After being metaphorically whipped over a wooden block and body-painted with blood streaks, he spent a good ten minutes suspended on wires above the heads of the other singers with his hands tied over his head with a thick rope. Sturrok finally ended upright, standing against a plinth with his eyes closed until the chorus started to sing the Amen at the end of the performance. At this point his eyes opened slowly, and a body-shaped projection was thrown onto him of the Erebus Ensemble singing, as the rest of the theatre flooded with light. The use of lighting to represent God worked well. The whole theatre including the audience was lit brightly when the chorus sang “Glory to God” and the Hallelujah chorus led by tenor Andrew Tortise. Morris told the audience at the beginning that they weren’t obliged to stand for the chorus and almost nobody did, but the Erebus Ensemble sang standing right at the front of the stage so the theatre was immersed in sound. Founded only last year, the young and dynamic Erebus Ensemble provided a fantastic chorus. Their voices were strong and the challenging canons and counterpoint were dynamic and exciting.
The orchestra, Southbank Sinfonia, was set up on either side of the front of the stage. The harpsichord sat with the larger string instruments and bassoon on the right and the smaller strings were placed on the left with conductor Simon Over in the very front left corner on a raised stool. I was worried that perhaps the divide of the orchestra, with the main stage action between them, was going to pose a problem, but it didn’t. Acoustically, the balance of the orchestra with the singers worked well. There was tiered seating behind the harpsichord, on which audience members were sat. It took me until the interval to discover this, but it explained why they hadn’t stood up to sing for the whole first half. There was no particular dress code to the performance and it was difficult to tell who was who, but this helped the audience on stage blend in to the performance. Their role in the end was to have their feet washed by Christ during alto Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ solo of “He Was Despised”.
This performance had a younger cast of performers, mostly in their mid 20s. The youngest member of the cast was Toby Yapp, who sat in the audience stalls until the end of the first half, where he seemed to initiate the resurrection, and then went on to sing “rejoice”.
The staging of the performance lived up to its description of being an experiment. It was a visually interesting performance, but at times there were elements of confusion as to what was going on, and to much slow walking on stage and off, which became distracting, particularly during key solos. The soloists put energy into their performances. The talented Caroline MacPhie’s gentle air of “If God be so much” was particularly moving, and powerful bass Neal Davies gave an exciting performance of “The trumpet shall sound”. Some parts felt overacted, but this could have been because I was fairly close to the stage. The second half was definitely more exciting than the first, as it was faster paced and more was happening on stage.
All in all, this performance was innovative and a success. Where it lacked in the execution of certain ideas, it flourished in musicality and as a visual spectacle. It was a climactic ending to a successful week of the Bristol Proms, which received a standing ovation.
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