Christmas Review


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Conceived and directed by Mitchell Moreno


Music direction and conducting by Stephen Hose


St. Michael’s Cornhill


1 December 2010  





A review by Richard J Thornton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

The brilliant thing about staging a play that is set in a church is that there’s no need to call in a designer. The not so brilliant thing is that it feels a little like your going to church, and with it the Pavlovian association of wanting to doze off. In this not-so reworked dramatic interpretation of Handel’s Messiah, the oratorio is given a new accompaniment in the form of an ensemble of finely talented singers who’ve been holed up in a WWII church awaiting the coming doom of Nazism.

The first half of the piece is difficult to follow; the scattered action means that the only structure comes from the regular and tedious solos which seem to have been distributed equally throughout the cast in a way fit for a showcase. The narrative is minimal; the worried collective peer-like meerkats towards the ominous doors of the church, but apart from the latent tension that ‘the enemy is approaching’ the plot lacks drama. This weakness lifts in the second act as a captured German soldier focuses the audience’s attention and their wounded comrade gives them someone to pity. The music is stronger too, not least helped by the universally emotive ‘Hallelujah’, and the quaver-beat precision on the choral vocals – most notably executed by Rosalind Coad and Vanessa Heine.

To judge the plot on its merit alone would be unfair considering the limitations imposed by the music which leads it, but it’s not hard to imagine how more intriguing narrative and sharper characterisation from Moreno would have enriched the production. Equally it might have been preferable to have the Solaris String Quartet in full view instead of disguised behind a grandiose wooden dug-out. It’s clear that the music is the focus and by allowing the audience to watch the music being made downstage, it may have enlightened them to the rhythm of the acted story upstage.

Because of the lack of dialogue the piece is gesture-heavy and replete with impassioned eye-blinking. Nevertheless, the singing is eminently powerful and the styling is suitably of the era to add some context and emotion to the piece. The casting enhances the setting with sharp Eastern European faces and masculine female tenors which eliminate any contemporary X Factor comparisons.

There’s some exceptional singing in this performance, and credit to Stephen Hose as the ensemble have been rehearsed corset-tight. But as with many operas, it’s a strain to understand what the characters are actually saying. This is one of the flaws of the piece: opera often rests on its sensational plots and sensuous narratives of deceit and passion. In Handel’s Messiah, the content is so goodly that the actors have little to act, and without dialogue to reveal their depth, it’s difficult to tell what roles they are attempting to play. There was a definite crescendo as the congregation mourned their dead companion, but the casualty is such a lettuce-leaf character that the audience fail to share in their remorse.

If you know and love Handel’s music, and think his Messiah is the perfect Christmas soundtrack, you’ll draw some festive worth from this production. The singing is beautiful, and the recently restored organ at St Michael’s church compliments the Renaissance acoustics harmoniously. But if this is your first encounter with Handel, you might do as you would before an Italian opera and read up on the script to limit mid performance skull-itching. If you’re patient and can foot-tap through a tepid opening half, you’ll be rewarded by a climax of the emotive and talented performers in the second. However, if you’re looking for a new lens through which to view The Messiah, it might be better to save your tenner and watch the production from the side alley through the rosy and intricate stained-glass windows.


Box Office:

St Michael’s Cornhill
St Michael’s Alley
London EC3V 9DS

1 December, 7pm

Tickets: £10


DECEMBER 4th (Saturday)

Windsor parish church
St John the Baptist
High Street
Berkshire , SL4 1BH

Time 7.00pm

Tickets £10.00 at the door

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