Let's make an opera: Deborah Warner at the directorial helm
English National Opera has adopted a new family favourite just in time for Christmas. Not Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel or Rossini's La Cenerentola, but a story some in the 21st century regard as a different kind of fairytale: Handel's Messiah (until 11 December). And it will be fully staged, with the brilliant and controversial Deborah Warner as director.
It's not that there aren't fine precedents for staging oratorios, passions and cantatas as if they were operas. Jonathan Miller was the pioneer, creating his sober and meditative production of Bach's St Matthew Passion back in 1994 — it's still enjoying hit revivals. And nearly ten years ago, Warner herself staged Bach's St John Passion for ENO, to tremendous acclaim. The critic Edward Seckerson called the production "quietly devastating", adding: "It is a religious experience in the broadest sense. We cannot walk away from it. We are all involved." But with a work as familiar as Messiah, will Warner be able to repeat that achievement?
Glyndebourne's transformation of the St Matthew Passion into a stage version directed by Katie Mitchell in 2007, was altogether less happy. "The St Matthew Passion is a failure," wrote the Independent on Sunday's Anna Picard, "for the extra-musical scenario Mitchell has devised...compromises the performance of the work itself, which in turn precludes any meaningful examination of the crime [her] scenario depicts..."
More extrovert and obviously dramatic than the meditative Bach, Messiah should require nobody to impose a scenario. Nevertheless, Glyndebourne's experience highlighted the obvious: these great choral works are not operas. They certainly contain narrative, but the qualities that one expects in a successful opera — strong characters, interpersonal conflict and so on — are not the priority. The operatic repertoire is not lacking in fine material; why present as an opera a work that isn't one? Is it really a valid way to persuade contemporary audiences to take a fresh look at a familiar masterpiece?
The issue raises both passions and hackles. András Schiff, the Hungarian pianist and conductor whose Bach performances have become a legend in his lifetime, is intensely opposed to the whole concept.
"I think these stagings are outrageous," he declares. "These masterworks are very dramatic and they do tell a ‘story', but the composer achieves this by musical means, with great subtlety. There are no visual or theatrical elements. For example, in the Judas aria in the St Matthew Passion, the rapid demisemiquaver runs of the solo violin perfectly depict the 30 silver coins that he is throwing into the temple. This is masterly and much more effective than any visual representation would be. I feel that staging takes away attention from the music, and the music is just too great."