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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Appreciation: Against the Grain Theatre's singing, dancing Messiah a work in progress

By John Terauds on December 14, 2013

 

Soprano Jacqueline Woodley (with arm raised) is surrounded by the 14-member chorus in Against the Grain Theatre's Messiah at the Opera House on Saturday night (John Terauds iPhone photo).
Soprano Jacqueline Woodley (with arm raised) is surrounded by the 14-member chorus in Against the Grain Theatre’s Messiah at the Opera House on Saturday night (John Terauds iPhone photo).

Arriving late and leaving at intermission precludes calling this a review of Against the Grain Theatre’s unorthodox presentation of Handel’s oratorio Messiah at the Opera House on Saturday night. So call it an appreciation of great ideas not fully realised.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

The main not-quite-there element is adding movement to this 1741 oratorio from 1741 when the text compiled and adapted by Charles Jennens from the Christian Old and New Testaments starts without a specific point of view.

The journey from promised spiritual redemption to its fulfillment, with the birth and death of Jesus Christ as the key markers in between, comes from an invisible narrator rather than in the highly personal voices found in J.S. Bach’s Passions, for example. Yes, there are soloists, but they don’t represent specific people.

The chorus in Messiah does represent a specific point of view: us, as the collective of flawed humanity.

In its original, purely sung form, the voices of the soloists are, in reality, disembodied. Adding movement makes them into bodies, and bodies make them into specific people — unless the movement is kept so abstract as to focus on the text rather than the person.

Against the Grain artistic director Joel Ivany and choreographer Jennifer Nichols have tried to focus on the abstract, but there was an overall self-consciousness about the result that kept the movement from feeling like an organic part of the narrative.

It didn’t help that the stage at the Opera House — a small, Vaudeville-era theatre at Queen St E. and Broadview Ave. that now serves as an indie-rock concert stop — is very small. Even having the reduced, 14-member choir and four soloists (soprano Jacqueline Woodley, mezzo Krisztina Szabó, tenor Isaiah Bell and bass-baritone Geoffrey Sirett) double as the dancers didn’t help make the way plain for unfettered motion.

Which brings us to the whole staging of the oratorio. There’s nothing wrong with the idea, but doing it on a tight, conventional proscenium stage in an acoustically dry venue with an improvised orchestra pit further separating the audience from the stage (despite various efforts to bring the chorus into the audience space) made it awkward. Here is a concept that would have felt more at home in the round or some other barrier-breaking format.

Overall, the hour I witnessed felt like a constant struggle between the oratorio and the creative team’s added layers — which also included constantly changing lighting that often left the soloists in deep shadow while singing.

Rather than being swept into the performance, I also found myself marvelling at how the soloists were managing to sing so well despite being asked to move their bodies in ways that would impede efficient singing. Despite the body-challenging choreography, all four did spectacularly well. All the singers, including chorus, performed from memory, which was also an impressive achievement.

The chorus was fine, if not always as precise or as balanced as what we’re used to hearing from Toronto’s best choirs. There were also several occasions where having more voices would have given the sound more kick. The same comments hold for the 18-piece modern-instrument orchestra, ably led by Against the Grain music director Christopher Mokrzewski.

Toronto upstart Against the Grain Theatre has earned its impressive reputation by presenting shows that cohere in conception as well as execution. Their Messiah, which has a repeat, sold-out performance on Sunday, is a loose assemblage of interesting ideas and talented musicians that is still waiting for its moment of cohesion.

+++

UPDATE:

I appear to be the only person who didn’t completely enjoy Saturday evening’s performance of Messiah by Against the Grain Theatre. So, to do better justice to there efforts, here are three reviews from people who sat through the whole show:

  • Joseph So in La Scena musicale — here.
  • Leslie Barcza in Barczablog — here.
  • John Gilks in Opera Ramblings — here.

 

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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