There are endlessly fascinating artistic directors working in the art of opera. Then, there are great artists. Claus Guth is a great artist. In his 2009 staging of Handel’s “Messiah,” Guth calls to mind the Protestant theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who believed that the Church had become inadequate in speaking about God. Bonhoeffer was embarrassed by the Church’s failure to convey the shocking, liberating, revolutionary power of the divine ideal. To attain that, Bonhoeffer once symbolically suggested a one hundred year moratorium on the name (and word) God. Perhaps then, the name and word could be attained.
Guth’s “Messiah” inhabits Bonhoeffer’s realm with a strikingly prophetic voice. We are, unwittingly or not, starved for such a challenging and provocative voice. Guth’s productions have never been less than impressive. Fortunately, many of these have been filmed and are available on DVD: Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (2006), the Mozart/Czernowin Zaide (2006), Richard Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxos (2006), Franz Schubert’s Fierrabras (2007), Mozart’s Don Giovanni (2008) and 2011’s Cosi fan tutti (Guth’s most uneven production and an odd fit in his Da Ponte trilogy ). From Guth’s body of work on film, it is clear why he is such an in-demand artist.
Still, I was not prepared for his version of Handel’s perennial favorite, Messiah (2010). Guth’s staging has been called agnostic, and that might be an apt description according to the traditional meaning (as opposed to contemporary interpretation) of the word. Simultaneously, this may also be the most “Christian” filmed religious narrative since Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture (1991). Guth’s Messiah makes an overly familiar yuletide narrative startling again. This production was staged for the 250th anniversary of George Frideric Handel’s death. I believe Handel would have approved.
The history of the composition is well known. Handel was in ill health, destitute, and on the verge on being sent to debtor’s prison when he received a commission from librettist Charles Jennens to write an oratorio on Christ’ Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. The libretto was a pastiche, borrowing from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayers. Handel composed it within three weeks and insisted on its being performed in secular theaters, as opposed to churches. Handel’s decision was harshly criticized by the churches, but it was an enormous success. Handel paid off his debts and used his extra earnings from “Messiah” to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and give comfort to those in prison.
Musically, this Messiah is not short-shifted. Jean-Chrstophe Spinosi conducts the period instrument Ensemble Matheus with imagination, style, and lucid insight. He is helped enormously by the artistically superior cast of Susan Gritton, Cornelia Horak, Martin Pollmann, Bejun Mehta, Richard Croft, and Floran Boesch, and the support of the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus (who are far from anonymous.With commendable personality, they actively participate in the performance).
As in many of his operatic productions, Guth brings additional characters into the drama. Nadia Kichler is the angel Gabriel as a “sign language perfomer” (or so she is referred to). Her expressive gestures, unseen by the other characters except when embarking on an existential plane, is, perhaps, a type of choreographed/ signed glossolalia as visual poetry (echoed by the sublime chorus) rather than actual sign language. Either way, she is a bewitching phantom figure who appears throughout the story in various guises. Guth tells the tale of three brothers, one of whom is the symbolic Christ (dancer Paul Lorenger). Lorenger’s Christ is a suicide, a failed businessman, and a spouse deprived of all virility. He is dressed in gray anonymity and his gaunt, saturnine presence is as captivating as Kichler’s Gabriel.
Messiah opens at the businessman’s funeral. His two brothers round out a dysfunctional trinity. The elder brother (bass Florian Boesch) is the iconoclastic addict, always on the verge of rage. The younger, sensuous brother (alto Bejun Mehta) is riddled with guilt over having betrayed both his wife (soprano Susan Gritton) and his dead brother. His recent affair with his late brother’s wife (soprano Cornelia Horak) looms large, a crackling whirlwind of guilt.
While iconoclastic in content, this Messiah is orthodox in context. Much symbolism is at hand. The funeral feast serves as the Eucharistic table. The ghost of the despised and rejected of businessmen resurrects and dances through a flashback of suffering stations, even mimicking the beating and the falling of Christ on the way to Golgotha. The businessman’s wife dries the feet of her lover with her hair, as Magdalene dried the feet of Christ. Lighting designer Jurgen Hoffmann evokes the banality of a barren capitalist society with all the scorching frigidity of an Egyptian desert.
Richard Croft as the presiding minister/Pharisee wrings his hand and waxes frustration, giving an unflattering depth to what could have easily been a two-dimensional role. Sopranos Gritton and Horak sing and act with clarity and dramatic conviction. The three brothers are a fascinating, contrasting trinity. There are even moments of humor (involving boy soprano Martin Pollmann) but, as usual with Guth, the humor is disconcerting.
Guth and his set designer Christian Schmidt have expertly created a surreal moment in time, after the long flashbacks, when the surviving participants are left wondering what to do, like earth-bound apostles after the ascension. It is a relevant moment without a conclusion, and I suppose that could also be said about the season itself.