COMFORT YE! HANDEL AND THE FIRST MESSIAH
Handel’s Messiah is a phenomenon: written in three weeks in the composer’s most disappointed phase, to this day it plays as sublimely as a chamber piece with eight singers as with the four thousand of us who annually sing it at the Royal Albert Hall in The Really Big Chorus (I operate as a semi-competent alto). It gets treated with high professionalism or as a parish singalong, truncated at the Alleluia Chorus or recorded as a “best-of” with some of the most beautiful moments missing, is done with heavy Victorian pomposity or bright original instruments, speeded up and slowed down. Nothing dents its shine.
The story Nick Drake tells in this simple three-hander by candlelight, is the story of its first performance in Dublin in 1742. Illustrated with fragments by the Portrait Choir it brings the story to musical life. Sean Campion is a scuttling, busy scene-setting narrator. Sometimes he is a ragged Irish music-porter and nocturnal bodysnatcher Crazy Crow, who merrily throws a horrid sack-wrapped corpse into the pit at one point. Sometimes he is the affable Lord Cavendish who invited Handel to try it out in the Fishambles music hall, so crowded that “the fleas went to the ceiling for a bit of air”, which was a bit of a comedown for the composer who decades earlier had ushered the King up-Thames with the Water Music. Sometimes he is the grieving, religiously anxious librettist Jennen who commissioned it and chose the Biblical verses.
David Horovich provides a gruff , demanding, perfectionist Georg Frederic Handel, and Kelly Price his contralto soloist Susannah Cibber, Who was not an oratorio singer, but an actress in low melodrama, on the run from an abusive marriage and a scandalously intimate adultery trial. Plenty of drama there, and despite a few early clunks (the Jennen moments tend to the portentous) Drake and director Jonathan Munby gradually raise it to something genuinely affecting, sometimes funny, and with pin-sharp significant interludes of aria and moments of chorus (“You are the people, all the angels, the chorus drives the music forward”).
The emotional heart of the play, one not historically incredible, is the interplay between the old composer and Mrs Cibber. At first it is about style – her actress gestures infuriate him when she fruitily attempts “But who shall abide the day of His coming”, and he berates singers who “bark, or whisper, or bellow, or puff themselves up”. He’d hate the X Factor. At one point he threatens to bury her in a barrel of sand to keep her still. He also scorns her vain terrors about “competing” with the Italian soprano whose showy high arias echo from backstage (even in the chorus we altos always slightly regard the sopranos with suspicion, even when blending with and needing them. It’s human nature).
But as their conversations – Handel often grumpily bathetic – reveal her suffering, working towards the great aria “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” it deepens and relates to other tragedies in Jennen’s and Handel’s life. The redemptiveness, the great “Comfort Ye” and promise of salvation for lost sheep, grows in meaning. And though the effect on the cynical Crow fels a touch overwritten, a touch Blarney, you’d need a nasty heart of stone not to feel it too. Particularly if the Messiah has meant anything to you in the darker times of life.
So yes, let the trumpet sound for this curious, short-running, honourable candlelit curiosity. It deserves an afterlife.