“Messiah” as Opera, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
As Handel did, I come from the world of opera and cannot help but look at Messiah as a masterpiece of musical drama. Handel, at the top of his game and with skills developed over almost a half century in the opera house, wrote this sublime musical drama, though without many three-dimensional characters and very little action. Drama comes from a Greek word meaning action, and Messiah is notoriously lacking in explicit stage action.
In a rehearsal room, stage directors continually ask, “Who are you? What is your objective? Where have you come from and where are you going? How are you going to achieve your goals?” Surprisingly, Messiah is very easy to decipher. “Who are you?” the Messiah, the anointed one. “What is your objective?” to save mankind. But is there drama? Is there “action”? Much of Messiah is philosophical thought and reporting about things that had happened—but are not necessarily happening now. Can history be dramatized? Is there inherent drama in the philosophy?
Charles Jennens (1700-1773), the librettist of Messiah, was a close personal friend and supporter of Handel; wealthy and intelligent, he was also an anti-Deist. Deists were believers in God, but embraced the Enlightenment and rejected the supernatural, miraculous aspects of the bible, attributing them rather to human action or the natural workings of science. The libretto for Messiah, on the other hand, is a manifesto for miraculous intervention.
Jennens’ libretto for Handel shows a man both intimately acquainted with the gospel and with a keen sense of narrative and drama. The libretto (printed in this program with Jennen’s scene divisions and commentary) is laid out as an opera libretto, with scenes and locations—some very concrete (shepherds in a field), others much more abstract (“A Thanksgiving for the Defeat of Death”).
Baroque opera is all about variety. Ancient philosophers defined three types of music: religious—sacred and mystical; chamber—nuanced and subtle; and theatrical—filled with variety to keep the disruptive audience—an audience filled with orange sellers, beer sellers, ladies of the night and rakes—interested and involved. Handel was a master of varying the mood, the tempo, the dynamic, the keys to enhance the drama. In the theater, librettists juxtaposed scenes to enhance the variety: a bright ballroom preceding a dark dungeon scene; a small inner room preceding an expansive formal garden; all of these transformations done “in the twinkling of an eye” with the amazing Baroque theater machinery. Oratorio preserved this roller-coaster structure.
Gary Thor Wedow, guest director
As a working musician, one sees the birth of oratorio from the musician’s standpoint. During Lent, theatrical performance was forbidden; however, one could keep doing the same work, just calling it by another name and choosing subjects from sacred texts. Early oratorio even had stage directions (Cavalieri’s Rappresentazione di Anima e di Corpo, one of the first oratorios, has specific stage directions for the singers), and many were performed with sets and costumes—a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Italian Baroque operas had very little chorus participation, saving money for the principal singers and the stupendous scenic effects; often the chorus was populated with employees involved in other aspects of the production—scene-shifters, wardrobe people, ticket takers, who came together once or twice an evening and sang a very simple chorus. With the oratorio, Handel was able to write for sophisticated professional choristers. With Messiah, he surpassed himself, making the chorus a protagonist and the mirror to the audience. The chorus becomes “we the people”; we step into the drama as actors alongside the other principal actors. “For unto US a child is born”; it is our salvation at stake.
All Handel’s principals were cast from the world of the theater, and they were cast by type, just like a movie: the soprano was the virgin, the angel; the alto the mother, the wronged woman; the tenor was the Evangelist and the hero; and the bass was the Old Testament prophet, the stern father. His early performers included John Beard, the great heroic tenor, without whom many of Handel’s oratorios would not have been written. Beard was equally popular in opera, light comedy, and music theater; he later became the proprietor of Covent Garden, inherited from his father-in-law. In later performances Handel had Guadagni, the great castrato, who was as famed for his acting as his singing, having studied with the great David Garrick, the inventor of modern stagecraft. For the premiere performance of Messiah in Dublin, Handel had a favorite of his, Mrs. Cibber, equally at home on the operatic stage and the dramatic stage. Susanna Cibber had recently been sued for divorce by her husband and lost; the judge imposed only one pound in damages for such a beloved and great artist. At the premiere of Messiah, after her performance of “He was despised,” a Dublin clergyman leapt to his feet proclaiming, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”
Simultaneously at the beginning of the eighteenth century in England, there arose a style of preaching, different from an earlier more sedate style. The new style, favored by Dissenters, Methodists, and other more progressive groups, urged speakers to speak from the heart: “On all Occasions let the Thing you are to speak be deeply imprinted on your own Heart. And when you are sensibly touch’d yourself, you will easily touch others, by adjusting your Voice to every Passion which you feel” (John Wesley, 1703-1791). This is advice very familiar to every actor.
A singer being capable of as many different vocal colors as the human heart is capable of emotions, Handel provided the singers in Messiah a panoply of varied arias in which to deploy their far-ranging gifts. The orchestra paints the dramatic scene as so clearly denoted in Jennen’s libretto; the choice of key, dance form, melodic shape, and rhythmic and rhetorical gesture all surprise and delight.
But a Handel opera is never just a succession of musical numbers to showcase the divas, but a dramatic train ride, sometimes speeding, sometimes slowing to admire the scenery, but irrevocably and pulsatingly pulling you to your destination: salvation and eternal life. His engine is fueled by Baroque dance, story-telling declamation, and the English choral anthem, brought to its peak by Purcell before being crowned by Handel. This astounding triumvirate of French dance, the theater, and the church pulsates with variety and the possibility of surprise and wonder.
Handel said that he wrote Messiah not only to entertain, but rather to make his listeners better people; however, to teach one must also entertain. He was proud of his knowledge of the Bible, and though private in his personal life and beliefs, in Messiah he clearly spoke from the heart.
— Gary Thor Wedow, guest director
Take part in a Portland holiday tradition. Hear Messiah as Handel would have. PBO’s period instrument players complement a quartet of internationally acclaimed soloists and renowned chamber choir Cappella Romana, under the direction of Gary Wedow, who led Portland Opera’s 2013 production of Handel’s Rinaldo with PBO. Choose a full-length or highlights performance. Hallelujah!
Gary Thor Wedow, director and harpsichord
Nathalie Paulin, soprano
Abigail Levis, mezzo-soprano
Aaron Sheehan, tenor
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone
Cappella Romana, chorus