The Stepford wife, the priest struggling with his own demons, the guilt-ridden adulteress, the substance-abusing black sheep of the family and the ousted CEO who turns to suicide; although these characters are staples in the world of daytime television dramas, it is a surprise to find them alive and (more or less) well in a Handel oratorio. The directorial team of Claus Guth, Konrad Kuhn and Christian Schmidt did just that in their 2009 staged production of Messiah, which has been slightly recast, reworked and enjoyed a very successful re-premiere in Vienna on Monday night.

Maria Bengtsson © Armin Bardel
Maria Bengtsson
© Armin Bardel

The production is remarkable on a number of accounts. Despite its mixed reviews three years back, it is one of the most interesting and successful productions of the season. The original oratorio is in itself plot-less; the texts are Biblical in nature but the character of the Messiah never appears nor is there any story in a traditional sense. Guth and his team draw on the concept of existential strain inherent in many of the texts to create a modern story featuring characters who are all experiencing some sort of crisis.

This imposed story commences with the funeral of a man which is attended by his widow and what we assume are his two younger brothers and their family. It is clear that the death was self-inflicted, and as the story scrolls back in time and then forward in the following acts, we witness his professional downfall, his wife’s estrangement and betrayal, and later the grief, rage and loss that result from this particular cocktail of difficulty and choice. The kicker is that the main protagonist in the story, this older brother around which all the drama revolves, never says a word. Played by the memorable dancer Paul Lorenger, this eldest brother (like the Messiah in Handel’s work) never himself utters a syllable, yet is strongly and continuously present.

Charles Workman © Armin Bardel
Charles Workman
© Armin Bardel

The curtain opens on Nadia Kichler, a “signing-actress”. Deaf from birth, Kichler found her way in the worlds of theatre and dance, and signs using her entire body. During the overture, she communicates in a way that gracefully blurs the lines between dance and “speech”. She appears throughout the evening under various guises; sometimes communicating the message, sometimes interacting with characters, and sometimes offering an alternative interpretation to what is being depicted. 

Does everything work in terms of the staging? Not exactly. There are points, especially in the second part, where the imposed story does not sit comfortably with the text. “How beautiful are the feet”, sung to a lover’s feet after a hotel room tryst, made eyes roll and seemed cheap in comparison to the depth of irony and power of many other moments. Likewise, the dramaturgy of the priest realizing a suicide is taking place next door to him and doing nothing holds little water. In comparison, “I know that my redeemer liveth”, sung as an accusation by a betrayed housewife, was gut-wrenching.

Musically, this production leaves little to be desired thanks to a strong set of soloists including sopranos Maria Bengtsson and Ingela Bohlin, tenor Charles Workman, countertenor Bejun Mehta and bass Florian Boesch. They not only sang well, but were thoroughly committed to their roles and were intricately directed. Their characters were well-drawn, and several (in particular Boesch, Bengtsson and Mehta) took interesting risks, occasionally choosing to sacrifice mere beauty of sound in exchange for heightened dramatic effect.

The Arnold Schoenberg Choir, in stellar form, not only overcame the unusual challenge of singing an oratorio without scores but also mastered some very involved choreography. Their movements drew heavily from sign language movement without exactly being signing... again muddying the boundaries between text and movement. Although the intricacy and exposed nature of some of the choreography made it painfully obvious when one or the other members got lost in all the motion, the overall effect was very strong, and their efforts were well appreciated.

Florian Boesch and Paul Lorenger © Armin Bardel
Florian Boesch and Paul Lorenger
© Armin Bardel

Last but not least, Christophe Rousset and his ensemble Les Talens Lyriques were divine, exhibiting energy and polish. Their phrasing was impeccable and the orchestra provided an ideal texture to support, but not overwhelm, the soloists. Musically, it was a feast.

There are many who would question the necessity of staging an oratorio never intended as such. Handel’s work stands perfectly well on its own, which is why it has enjoyed nearly continuous performance since its inception in 1741. I would argue, however, that taking a well-known work like Messiah and layering it with other texts, forms and stories may be valuable. Doing so provokes new musical interpretations and lends fresh meaning to numbers which have longed seemed familiar. Instead of wearing the same pattern into the carpet of our minds, we suddenly find ourselves in new territory. We might not prefer it over what we are used to, but our perceptions will be awakened and challenged, and we will likely hear the work differently in the future.

****1