Hallelujah. Something new from a seasonal standby.
Handel’s Messiah is a fixture of the Christmas season. Woe to any musical society or concert hall that fails to schedule the piece in December. For many amateur choirs, it’s a challenge, a tradition and a highlight of the year’s repertoire. And not just for the pure love of the piece. Handel’s Messiah is to America’s choral societies and orchestras what La Bohème is to its opera houses, Romeo and Juliet is to its small theaters and Nutcracker to its ballets: one performance is the guaranteed full house that can bankroll a whole season of deficits, in the few weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year.
That’s the same amount of time it takes that soft rock radio station to play Christmas in the Northwest one million, four hundred and fifty five thousand, nine hundred and eighty five times.
Just let that sink in.
Messiah follows the life and death of Jesus as prophesied by Isaiah and is told in the words of the Gospel according to Luke. Structurally, it is mapped out by the liturgical year (and thereby, Christ’s life), starting with Advent, then Christmas, Lent, Easter, the Ascension and Pentecost. It ends with the joining of Heaven and Earth as Christ comes again.
Even though the subject of Messiah is religious, the piece is universal to all humanity because it mainly touches upon the human response to divine mystery; a topic that is as fascinating to religious leaders as it is to atheists. Combine that fascination to the pure genius of Handel’s mastery of music, there is no wonder why the soaring, raw joy of the Hallelujah chorus is recognized all over the world.
Messiah as its own work stands apart from other oratorios, since there are no named characters. It is a meditation of themes rather than a drama of personalities. The “plot” is lyrical and carried by implied circumstances, each portion of the story delivered by a representative of operatic monologue.
Typically done by a booming 60+ voice chorus, 4 powerhouse soloists and a giant orchestra sitting in a huge concert hall, this Messiah was performed in an intimate black box theater at Taproot, with one piano and 12 voices, with Inverse Opera’s typical unorthodox style.
The best part about the minuscule cast, was the experimentation on theme and dynamics. The music takes on a whole new meaning when you have the freedom to play to with the tension and release. Representing the lyrics with musical dynamics. The magnificence of the music no longer is the result of bombast, but rather the emotional outcome of Handel’s manipulation of antiphonal effects, stunning unisons, divided familiar-style and contrapuntal writing, and superimposed textures performed theatrically with personalization and representation.
Ben Sasnett’s tenor is comforting and familiar. His dramatic performance was a beautiful experience in Part II. He sits, off to the side, head in his hands, grief exuding from every still breath as those he called earlier, mourn for the death of Christ. The bleakness of his delivery was true and moving.
Bubbly and bouncy soprano Shelly Traverse is a sunshiny burst of operatic energy, her melismas flying at a million miles an hour. And matched with Hayley Baudrau Gaarde’s silvery mezzo, He Shall Feed His Flock was a highlight of the evening.
Bass Eric Jensen gruffs and looms about the stage, his deep bass and fantastically dark presence make cast members hilariously uncomfortable but in a charming way, like a shark in a silly hat. He is, in essence, the Ron Swanson of oratorio. The comedic delivery in his Airs were a lovely juxtaposition to the traditional heavyweight of the Messiah’s content. His comedy early in the performance made the moment he becomes a comfort to the cast all the more touching.
The chorus propels the work forward in an emotionally triumphant way. They are the fulcrum of the work, reacting in Greek chorus style to the messages pronounced in the recit and Airs. They have an increasingly difficult job. Only two voices per part, each singer (Julia Beers, Ashley Biehl, Jenny Cross, Andrew Eric Davison, Justin Johns, Bianca Raso, Derek Sellers, Robert Wilson) must rely heavily on their counterpart while blending and supporting the others, often at completely opposite sides of the stage, 2-3 feet apart from another singer. They did an incredibly beautiful job staying energized (and in key) while maintaining a very soft pianoforte for the majority of the performance. There were only one or two moments where the presence of a larger chorus would have masked the intermittent clash of the individual vocal fachs.
Director Rob Scherzer has inserted characterization into Messiah and has customized the message of community in one evening of singularly eloquent self-reflection. The people on stage singing to the audience are not separated from the audience by fifty feet and a million instruments, they look like us. They grieve and rejoice and laugh and embrace and cry and fear. They are us.
Highly recommended to all for this Holiday Season; no matter the religious belief you subscribe to, or your opinion of new takes on old traditions. Inverse Opera’s Messiah is incredibly accessible, moving and intriguingly unique. This is not your traditional Messiah, and I’m thankful. If I have to hear Christmas in the Northwest followed by a traditional Hallelujah Chorus on that adult soft rock radio station one more time…
By Jennifer Nöel Klouse