Handel: Messiah

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Messiah
PERFORMER: Susan Gritton, Cornelia Horak (soprano), Bejun Mehta (countertenor), Richard Croft (tenor), Florian Boesch (bass), Martin Pöllmann (boy soprano), Paul Lorenger (dancer), Nadia Kichler (sign language performer); Arnold Schoenberg Chor; Ensemble Matheus/Jean Christophe Spinosi; dir. Claus Guth (Vienna, 2009)


If an aged relative has been dropping hints that they’d like a DVD of Messiah for Christmas, Claus Guth’s Vienna staging might not best fit the bill unless they’re happy with a Part 1 that opens in a funeral parlour and ends in an art gallery, don’t mind an ‘I Know that My Redeemer Liveth’ accompanied by a dysfunctional take on the Last Supper, and have the stomach for a drinks vending machine kick-starting ‘The People that Walked in Darkness’ ahead of some footwork out-performing anything Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks might have dreamt up. King’s Cambridge with ruffs it’s not! 

But there are some penetrating ideas lurking behind the underlying premise, which in essence orbits around the moral, theological and familial fallout surrounding a suicide – viewed in flashback and consequence.

The problem comes in trying to marry the specifics of Jennens’s libretto to Claus Guth’s fitfully ingenious dramatic narrative, and in accommodating his tendency to go OTT for the jugular – literally during the funeral where the coffin is opened and the slashed wrist brandished to the mourners: pure grand guignol. It’s over-slick, too, for the lover to be languidly pulling on his socks as ‘How lovely are the feet’ beckons. 


The excesses sometimes find an echo in Jean-Christophe Spinosi’s otherwise wonderfully alert musical direction, and in countertenor Bejun Mehta’s overwrought ‘But who may abide?’; yet mostly (Mehta included) the singing blazes with conviction, with Susan Gritton, Florian Boesch and Cornelia Horak – not forgetting Ensemble Matheus – on particularly ear-catching form. Not a Messiah for the faint-hearted but there are rich rewards for the open-mindedly indulgent. Paul Riley