The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra is renowned for its recreation of the classical sound, playing from the same instruments that would have been heard in the 1700s. With a gorgeous fluidity and cohesiveness within the orchestra, I would recommend attending the Messiah for this element alone. With its unique charms, however, also comes major drawbacks for progress. Paul Dyer not only insists that the instrumentation is authentic, but the voice parts as well. Rather than using female altos, he chose a chorus of countertenors to sing the alto line with a countertenor soloist. This choice is aligned with the Brandenburg values, but unfortunately detracted from the volume of sound for this vocal line. The soloist, Nicholas Spanos, performed with beautiful phrasing in the calmer scenes, but his timbre was completely drowned out by the orchestra in other places.
As you can imagine, having an SATB choir, with male altos, led to a male-heavy chorus. Did the orchestra balance out this discrepancy by having more female musicians? Unfortunately, they were outnumbered as well, unnecessarily making this an extremely male-heavy production.
The staging and costuming were excessively bizarre, with members of the chorus in long white shirts or dresses, and all performers without shoes. In one pivotal moment before the Hallelujah Chorus, the singers rushed onto stage through the aisles, wearing red scarves in different manners, wrapped around shoulders, or perhaps casually draped across the neck. One member of the chorus was clutching onto his scarf as he sang, bringing attention to the odd way in which he wore the scarf. Add “professional choir-singing faces” to the mix, and you have one poor excuse for drama.
The four soloists showed extreme emotion in their deliveries; the chorus members did not. Only a few stand-out choristers breached the divide between the soloists and the choir, providing facial variety in their performance. This discrepancy was extremely disgruntling for the viewer, and although the staging and acting choices were there, they were untruthful and crude. Despite all this, I was bouncing along to most of the scenes, comforted by the beauty of Handel’s music.
If you want to feel flummoxed by distasteful staging and acting choices, please come to this show. If you’d like to hear a delightful version of Handel’s Messiah, please come to this show and close your eyes. You may, however, have to open them to try and read the lips of the countertenor.
by Ranga Liliu