One does not normally associate Handel with the Ballets Russes but on this occasion, the first performance of Messiah by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, the comparison was irresistible. The Baroque period orchestra was lined up in rather an attenuated fashion across the back while, further down, the stage was occupied by an almost constantly milling crowd of choristers in white, with soloists in black and white. Paul Dyer, clad in red velvet jacket, conducted partly from the harpsichord, but also frequently sprang up and leapt nimbly from side to side in front of the orchestra. During “Unto us a son is born”, every “Wonderful” was punctuated by a star jump from the conductor;  I can hardly have been alone in thinking Nijinsky.

The Brandenburg Choir © Steven Godbee
The Brandenburg Choir
© Steven Godbee

The work has been “reimagined” by Dyer and staging director Constantine Costi into four scenes inspired by artworks from the Baroque period, depicted in the programme. There is a Caravaggio, The Calling of St Matthew (Biblical at least) which relates to the scene entitled “Darkness to Light”, a Velásquez entitled The Triumph of Bacchus suggesting (somehow) “The Dream”, another Caravaggio called The Seven Works of Mercy representing “Shame and Mourning”, and a Rubens, The Complete Reconciliation of the Queen and her Son, equating to “Ecstatic Light”. Being overly literal minded, I failed to detect anything relating to Messiah on the one hand, or the staging on the other. Said staging consisted of the costuming above, and a lot of wandering around by the choir, shifting of chairs and also moving the soloists about a lot. And everyone was barefoot, no doubt symbolising rustic purity, or something. During “Thy rebuke has broken His heart”, the chorus dropped handfuls of dirt (ashes? dust?) onto the stage. While we have had quite a few successful staged oratorios of late, Messiah doesn't readily lend itself to such treatment.

Nicholas Spanos © Steven Godbee
Nicholas Spanos
© Steven Godbee

One of the more egregious effects was the countertenor singing “He was despised” while drawing from his person a long red scarf, no doubt intended to represent suffering, bleeding hearts etc. He then used the scarf to blindfold the tenor sitting on a chair, who endured this until after singing “All they that see him”.

The performance squeaked in at two hours, including interval. This was not due to overly brisk tempi (although they were brisk) but was achieved by ripping out the heart and a few other organs from the work. “He shall feed his flock” was bizarrely sung as a love duet between alto and soprano, during which Dyer half-turned to listen to the latter in a particularly coquettish gesture. After which “His yoke is easy” was not performed. Neither was “And with his stripes”. The entire pivoting point of Messiah was omitted: nothing after “Behold and see” until “How beautiful are the feet”. So Christ’s soul was left in hell and the gates and everlasting doors did not lift their heads, the King of Glory failed to come in and he failed to go up on high. 

Kyle Bielfield © Steven Godbee
Kyle Bielfield
© Steven Godbee

Furthermore, their sound did not go out, heads were not broken asunder, no one was broken with a rod of iron. No, we went straight from the nations furiously raging to the Hallelujah chorus. For this, the chorus added red scarves to their ethnic white outfits and ran onto the stage, and a bank of spotlights raked down through the audience onto the stage. A few of them were noticeably twitching their bare feet in the dirt/ashes/dust previously dropped. It’s a pity we can’t rely on the Hallelujah Chorus to carry any drama on its own. Part III suffered what has rather sadly become its frequent fate, truncated down to “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, “The trumpet shall sound” and then a leap to “Worthy is the Lamb”. 

All the soloists had been encouraged to lay on decoration with a trowel at every appropriate, and inappropriate, opportunity. The chorus however was aurally wonderful, with crisp unison in the parts and gleaming high notes. Similarly the orchestra played gloriously under concertmaster Shawn Lee-Chen, with the usual brilliant trumpet solo by Leanne Sullivan.  One should have sat through the whole thing with eyes shut tight, particularly for the choruses, especially the final “Worthy is the Lamb". While his bleeding eviscerated corpse writhed on the floor through much of this, at the very end, as usual, Handel rose triumphant.