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SCRUTINY | Against The Grain Goes Full On Oratorio

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At the conclusion of the first innovation of Handel’s Messiah in Dublin, a friend approached Handel, and said, “I must congratulate you upon such a beautiful piece of entertainment.” “Entertainment!” replied Handel, “That was not entertainment, it was an education.”

Returning after three years’ grace from the Toronto Messiah circuit, Against the Grain Theatre presented their fully staged (barefoot) Messiah, which concluded yesterday to a full house of Messiah diehards at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.

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AtG’s Messiah (Photo: Malcolm Cook)

The production marked AtG’s second stab at Handel’s holiday classic, (the first was in 2013) but there were some lessons to learn.

AtG is an opera company, and as such deals with history and mythology, and the use of romance, deception, and murder as dramatic devices. The Oratorio, however, is about the sacred. It was originally developed in 17th -century Italy as a counter to the spectacle of opera.

The Messiah brings issues of size (go big or go home) and musical arrangements (Mozart or Goossens). Casting is a major concern, as each soloist acts as a symbol, rather than an actual person. It’s tricky because they are disembodied, and don’t carry a narrative in the traditional sense. Moreover, the chorus represents an imperfect humanity, and along with the audience, are essentially all sinners. The trick, it seems, is to move the narrative away from the text, and allow the stage direction and music to present the unifying dramatic elements.

AtG’s take likely had some inspiration from Vienna’s Theater an der Wien first ever staged Messiah by Claus Guth. With no real narrative, it is abstracted by mixing multiple stories, united in the music and characters only. This has been explored in opera too; with Bayreuth’s Parsifal they relate three different stories told at once. The takeaway is that it is possible to weave many stories together, without getting a headache trying to figure it all out. Maybe this is our internet brains taking shape, but it seems to work for the 21st century.

AtG's Messiah (Photo: Malcolm Cook)
AtG’s Messiah (Photo: Malcolm Cook)

The AtG Messiah sets Messiah as a dancing/singing frolic that gallops around the stage (and aisles) with equal parts fun and frenzy. Separated by a moat filled with an 18-member orchestra, the production spares little lighting and props but is chockablock full of young, enthusiastic singers who are much more than mere choristers. (Holy Tutti!)

The 2.5-hour jaunt through the story of Jesus Christ was sung entirely by memory, which is an impressive feat. Equally amazing was that the vocalists were somehow able to sing exceptionally well while performing intricate choreography by Jennifer Nichols, which at times was like watching Madonna’s 1980’s Vogue (strike a pose).

With a glint of sweat on his brow, the small orchestra was watchfully conducted by Music Director Topher Mokrzewski, who keep the musical showmanship in all the right places.

 

Bass Stephen Hegedus/AtG's Messiah (Photo: Malcolm Cook)
Bass Stephen Hegedus/AtG’s Messiah (Photo: Malcolm Cook)

Sometimes the erroneously unbuttoned tenor Joshua Wales showed off his abs. Sometimes bass Stephen Hegedus undressed to reveal a gilded onesie in a cloud of glitter. Sometimes tenor Owen McCausland undressed as well. There were a lot of symbols at play here. What they all mean is anyone’s guess, but the lack of literal meaning was filled with laughter, which is a first for an Oratorio. The opera comique tropes make appearances, but I heard no cries of violation of a sacred subject, nor calls of irreverence to sacred Christian symbols.

AtG didn’t pretend to be an earnest Messiah, and instead took the universals of redemption and made them everyones. That was their earnestness.

It’s is a lot like throwing a piece of cooked pasta against the wall. If it sticks, it’s done. If it drops, it needs a few more minutes. This Messiah sticks.

Special Note:

I see a lot of Messiahs every year, and each is amazing in their way. But a special shout out goes to AtG’s Messiah, as it made me rethink the fundamentals of related musical form and the meaning they present us. It’s refreshing to say the least.

#MUSICALTORONTO

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Michael Vincent
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Michael Vincent

Editor at Musical Toronto
Michael Vincent has worked as a senior editor for La Scena Musicale and web editor for Norman Lebrecht. On January 21, 2014, he went to lunch and left as the publisher of Musical Toronto. Later that year he found himself as a freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star, the former employer of his favourite author Ernest Hemingway. Michael holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Toronto.
Michael Vincent
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