Sunday, December 15, 2013

Review: (Toronto) The Messiah

(photo by Darryl Black)

Messing With Messiah
by Ramya Jegatheesan

Against the Grain’s Messiah begins as any other Messiah might. Singers decked out in their Sunday best: the men in black suits and bow ties; the women in gowns. They are seated, music in hand. Except we are not in a concert hall, but in the grungy Opera House and the drinks are flowing. 

Then the tenor starts to undress. First the cuff links go. Then the bow tie. The sleeves are rolled up. The shirt is unbuttoned. The shoes come off, and the score is tossed away. Now you know: this is not your grandmother’s Messiah. 

Against the Grain’s Messiah is cheeky, yet reverent and grounded. This centuries-old beloved Christmas tradition has been given an inventive spin, and it is glorious to see. Handel’s beloved oratorio has been brought down from the heavens and given an operatic spin. The singers perform a juggling act, balancing their vocal acrobatics with a visual story borne through movement. They have no crutch – the notes they sing have been committed to memory, and they dance, with beautiful fluid strokes. 

This is an unveiling not just of a new work, but also of the Against the Grain orchestra and chorus. It is a night of many triumphant firsts. 

Stage director Joel Ivany masterfully walks the line between edgy and faithful without rupturing the spirit of Handel’s Messiah, and Jennifer Nichols’ choreography brings clarity and artistry to the work.  

Standouts include tenor soloist Isaiah Bell who stole the spotlight whenever he appeared in the first half. His joy in his journey and self-discovery was both striking and engaging. His dramatic presence elevated the production. In the second half, it was bass soloist Geoffrey Sirett who stole the show with his physicality and humour. I have never seen such splendid baa’ing before. 

I also appreciate how gracefully the Hallelujah climax and Amen ending were handled: they were compelling yet humble. I had chills. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the spectacular lighting of the night, which ran the gamut from dramatic and intense to warm and inviting. 

I do have quibbles, but they are few. While the orchestra was lovely and intimate, in rare moments the trumpets were too prominent. There were also moments when the tenor soloist and soprano soloist voices did not carry over the orchestra. A little volume adjustment would go a long way. The synchronization could also be tighter. But these are minor concerns in what is otherwise a powerful and inviting production. 

You will never look at Handel’s Messiah the same way again. Amen to that. 

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