Staging ‘Messiah’ For Our Time Is Mixed Blessing

Countertenor Tim Mead, bass Florian Boesch, and tenor Allan Clayton carry dancer Ahmed Soura, portraying Jesus, in the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin concert staging of Handel’s ‘Messiah.’ (Photos copyright Kai Bienert)

BERLIN — If Handel’s Messiah has piqued the interest of stage directors in the 21st century, reinventing the sacred oratorio as a piece of theater still opens questions about the aesthetic necessity of doing so. A concert production for the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin by director Frederic Wake-Walker, which premiered at the Philharmonie on Dec. 15, emerged as an ambitious but cumbersome attempt to infuse the religious work with contemporary relevance.

Dancer Ahmed Soura is a native of Burkina Faso.

The oratorio presents even more of a directorial challenge than the Bach Passions, which Peter Sellars realized with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2010 and 2014 (the St. Matthew Passion was such a success that it traveled to New York, London, Lucerne, and Salzburg). The soloists in Messiah do not inhabit clear roles. And the text, drawn largely from Old Testament scripture while upholding the doctrine of Christ’s birth by the Virgin Mary and his resurrection, offers no linear narrative.

Wake-Walker took a rather concrete approach by casting the dancer Ahmed Soura as an incarnation of the Messiah (in the libretto, he never actually appears). This Burkina Faso native responded to the music with movement that was now flowing (the Pastoral Symphony), now ferocious (“Why do the nations so furiously rage together”). He spent most of the second part playing dead, only to writhe his bare legs into a headstand from beneath a pile of crumpled tissue (“How beautiful are the feet”).

The stage at best resembled an art installation, at worst a jarring mix of postmodern chaos and conservative performance practice. More than 20 LED lights glared at the audience (designs by Ben Zamora, who collaborated with Sellars on two Philharmonic productions), while Soura occupied his own center-stage platform. String players faced music director Robin Ticciati in a semicircle, and the RIAS Chamber Choir stood or sat dutifully to the side until the final chorus (“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain”).

Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená gestures to dancer Ahmed Soura.

The production brought together an impressive group of soloists but they, too, did not seem driven by a consistent creative concept. Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, very much at home on the stage of the Philharmonie after not just the Passions but two other opera semi-stagings with Sellars, was a radiant, free spirit, evoking the same dusky tone and maternal seductiveness with which she portrayed Mary Magdalene in the Sellars St. Matthew Passion. And yet her performance in this context of this production was often overstated.

Soprano Louise Alder with dancer Ahmed Soura.

Bass Florian Boesch, who sang in Claus Guth’s 2009 production of Messiah in Vienna, similarly heightened the drama to a fault with overly slow recitatives and a demonic gaze while also creating gripping tension in the air “The people that walked in darkness.” The young soprano Louise Alder was an elegant and restrained presence even when tossing crumpled tissue paper or handing Soura a cape with which to clothe his half-naked body. Tenor Allan Clayton brought a pure tone but an occasional air of insouciance. Countertenor Tim Mead offered impressively agile runs yet only glimmers of character development.

The orchestra delivered a taut performance, which was all the more impressive given that the strings were playing baroque instruments and Ticciati was conducting Messiah for the first time. He took excessive liberties with tempi, however, particularly in the first part, pushing the music toward melodrama.

The RIAS Chamber Choir combined transparency with a superb blend of tone but could at times have invested the text with more legato and tension. The singers did not always seem integrated into the dramatic arc, perhaps because of their placement upstage. Given the logistical challenges of staging the oratorio, perhaps it is best to leave well enough alone.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.