Most seem to agree musical historicism can go too far: imagine a Plymouth Plantation-style re-enactment of a concert of Baroque music with the audience coming and going, eating picnics in the gods, a musician wearing a modern watch dismissed as a “farb.” Luckily most musical historicists are more practical and flexible. For this concert the hall lights stayed up, which is a nice touch, even if electrics are not as pretty as the candle-lit halls of days past. Unfortunately, and I assume unintended by the musicians, the audience did come and go in between the first several songs, which not only rudely made the musicians wait but disrupted the flow of the program, and one woman, having missed three or four songs, came clumping down the wood-floored aisle in high-heels making an incredible noise. More cheerfully, Mr Scholl had the audience join in on the refrain of Purcell’s Man is for the Woman Made, which, according to Mr Scholl, is what Purcell intended when he originally composed it, for light relief in the theatre. And it did provide some short refreshing relief among the quite serious music in this program.
How many times have you heard “Messiah” sung? I reckon I have sung it at least 50 times, and maybe 5 of those were dramatic in any direct way. Why is this? Several reasons. The choruses are fun to sing. Any amount of imprecision is condoned in a kind of Yuletide lassitude. It is familiar. Are the tunes really all that good, or do we just know them well? It fits into almost any kind of Christian ritual. Amateur singers, who sing the overwhelming majority of performances, already know the notes. Only the soprano and bass solo roles are really technically demanding. The list goes on. I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of this piece. “Messiah” is not a churchy piece. It should not be an entirely comfortable piece. Is there a more harrowing depiction of loneliness in all of Western art than the unaccompanied passages in “He Was Despised”? Doesn’t the blazing aggressive grandeur of the final chorus nearly frighten, like the end of the Gloria in the Missa Solemnis of Beethoven? Don’t we often miss what is the limited exuberance of the Hallelujah Chorus (the third part of the oratorio is still to come), when it ends most Christmastide performances? I certainly do not want to take away anyone’s joy, and joy there is, in singing this piece. I am suggesting that we should approach the metaphysical drama of “Messiah” from a stage-worthy angle.
The Boston Early Music Festival’s chamber opera series got off to a brilliant start last year with a double bill of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Actéon, and there was much anticipation for this year’s production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea in the version performed at Cannons, the estate of James Brydges, soon to be awarded the title, Duke of Chandos, by which he is best known both to historians and to Handel enthusiasts. Some 45 years had passed since the first performances of Blow’s and Charpentier’s works, but this kind of entertainment, a partially-staged masque, or pastorale, was not yet outmoded in London, where its supporters defended the English tradition of Blow and Purcell against its critics, who favored Italian opera. For his then extremely wealthy patron, Handel was able to produce a simple, straightforward work of great beauty, which, although originally designed for private performance at Cannons, with its literary coterie, art collection, gardens, and waterworks, enjoyed a future as a more elaborately staged operatic performance.
In the summer of 1717, after the highly successful performance of his Water Music for the King of England, Handel left busy London and went to take up residence at rural Cannons, a few miles from the English capital. The composer, temporarily unable to have his operas produced, was answering the invitation of one of his patrons: James Brydges, the Earl of Carnarvon, who would in 1719 be elevated to the title by which he is best known: the Duke of Chandos.