Simon Ward reviews Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience at Theatre Royal Drury Lane
For one night only, as a festive treat, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane gives the cast of Frozen a night off and is taken over by what is billed as a ground-breaking version of Handel’s Messiah. It is designed to satisfy existing Handel lovers while also appealing to a new audience who will be enticed by exciting new elements which will draw them in and allow them to enjoy some of the world’s best loved music, up to and including the irresistible Hallelujah Chorus itself. A glorious theatre and a glamorous occasion, what could possibly go wrong?
Sadly, the answer is rather a lot. There is a frisson of doubt when one of the creatives referenced is flora&faunavisions GmbH, charged with ‘co-concept and multimedia creation’. The fact that it is a company rather than an individual leads one to fear a show designed by committee. Whatever the truth of this, the evening is made up of at least four distinct parts which sadly fail to cohere.
There is a huge light display at the back of the stage around which the choir are arranged. This seems rather beautiful at first but as the evening progresses the changes of lighting and screen displays, presumably intended as meaningful and appropriate, end up reminding one of nothing so much as a computer screen saver.
There are three dancers (Dan Baines, Jemma Brown and Sera Maehera) who move between auditorium and stage at various points in the concert, again presumably with some resonance with the music, although this was unfortunately lost on me. They were not bad, but there was not enough space on stage for them to fully express their potential or for the choreography to rise above the perfunctory.
There are two actors, Martina Laird and Arthur Darvill, billed as ‘Narrators’, although there was no obvious attempt at narration. Instead there was a series of poems read by ‘Mother’ and ‘Child’ – possibly another take on the story of Mary and Jesus, or perhaps a more general meditation on motherhood and childhood. Either way, again, it was not bad, exactly, but failed to make sense in context.
Finally, there is the music. And it does feel as if it is the poor relation in this show. One might forgive everything else if this was a revelatory performance of a well-loved classic, trimmed and made accessible to an audience who may not wish to sit through an entire Messiah. Here once again there is disappointment. It may be that one is spoiled by the many excellent recordings that are available and so expectations are set too high. For me the orchestral and choral forces were insufficient to the task – the English Chamber Orchestra and the London Symphony Chorus needed more, and conductor Gregory Batsleer was unable to conjure enough heft. Even the Christmas cracker ‘For Unto Us A Child Is Born’ was disappointing – it should pop and sparkle and here sounded reticent and distant. The soloists (Danielle De Niese, soprano, Idunno Münch, mezzo-soprano, Nicky Spence, tenor and Cody Quattlebaum, bass-baritone) were acceptable but not really exhilarating – again the acoustic and sound design may not have helped as the diction was not always perfect.
One final cavil – the audience was unsure quite what to make of this. By which I mean they did not know how to respond – when to clap, when to hold back? Clap each dance or save applause to the end? Clap each soloist, or only if they especially ‘deserved’ it? This reached the apotheosis of awkwardness as the audience uncertainly rose to their feet for the Hallelujah Chorus – why? I understand a reluctance to dictate expected behaviour but when you are trying something new and experimental and want to introduce a new audience it might be helpful to advise how and when people might care to show appreciation.
Handel’s Messiah The Live Experience played at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 6th December 2022