Messiah’s world premiere in 1742 at the Great Music Hall in Dublin was a huge success. The benefit concert—which was filled to overflowing—made money for two hospitals and freed 142 men from debtor’s prison. Handel himself was acquainted with debt. His losses from composing and producing Italian opera in London and his ensuing need for a new source of in- come were what had led him to invent a new form of musical entertainment: the English oratorio. Messiah was his seventh.
But when Messiah was first performed at Covent Garden in the British capital a year later, it fell afoul of the separation of church and stage. Londoners considered theaters such dens of iniquity that the Bishop of London ordained them off-limits for any religious performance. The libretto for Messiah, of course, consists entirely of verses from the King James Bible, and unlike the majority of Handel’s other oratorios, there are no characters, plotline, or action. That didn’t stop Handel—a true man of the theater—from imbuing the piece with drama. As Jonathan Cohen, who conducts the Philharmonic’s performances, presented by Gary W. Parr, December 11–15, says: “Handel always imagined the music as if it’s for the stage. He’s always telling a story, and the music is always reflecting that. And I think there’s no difference between that and opera.” In choosing soloists for Messiah, Cohen looks for dynamic singers who can “grip the audience” and “bring alive the music.”
All of this season’s soloists are celebrated for their vivid operatic portrayals. Bass Neal Davies thinks “our job is to draw the listener in without the full effects of an opera production—but then, that should also be our aim when singing opera!” Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, Musical America’s Vocalist of the Year, feels that Handel’s Messiah “must be delivered exactly as one of his operas would be. The arias are narrative, emotional, at times psychological, and should be rendered with a full dramatic palette.” Soprano Lauren Snouffer finds the Bible itself operatic. “Regardless of religious beliefs, it’s a compelling story with interesting characters and a captivating sequence of events.”
Musical storytelling in Messiah begins with the first vocal line, delivered by tenor Andrew Staples. “Those magical, simple, opening chords of the recitative ‘Comfort ye’ are very special; Handel’s done all the hard work; the soloist’s job is to put the audience at ease, and say to them, look this is going to be a great concert, and you’ll love it.” The aria that follows, “Ev’ry valley,” shows the com- poser’s skill at word-painting, letting music illuminate the words “crooked,” “straight,” “exalted,” and “plain.”
Given craftsmanship like that, the few times Handel seems to have gotten it wrong feel strange: an extended melisma in the chorus “His yoke is easy” that is anything but easy; stressing “For unto us a child is born” rather than “For unto us a child is born.” The reason is not, as a choir director friend likes to joke, that it makes sense if you sing it with a German accent, as Handel would have done. It’s that the score to Messiah was completed in an astonishing 24 days, which the composer did in part by borrowing material from a set of his own Italian duets. In those, the text underlay works, and the “easy” melisma illustrates the Italian word ride, which in English means “laughs.”
Handel knew a good tune when he’d written (or recycled) one, and Messiah consists of one great tune after another. Jonathan Cohen says Handel’s ability to send audiences home whistling the melodies has made Messiah a perennial favorite. “That’s a great achievement, to churn out hit after hit after hit in the same piece. It’s not many people—not even our pop stars—who can churn out hit after hit after hit on a single album.” Cohen and the soloists all agree that Messiah could hold its own as an opera, although Andrew Staples thinks the piece is so epic in scope that “it would make a better film, or an HBO box set. Imagine the Game of Thrones special-effects guys creating scenes of angels appearing to shepherds in a field.”
Then again, Neal Davies, who’s been in a staged version of Messiah, says, “As soon as a piece is presented as an operatic production, the listener is guided by the concept of the director. In a concert performance, they are free to put any interpretation upon it they may choose.”
That’s the genius of Handel’s Messiah: the drama is in the ear of the beholder.
Naomi Lewin was the host of weekday afternoon music on WQXR and the podcast Conducting Business, after having created the award-winning weekly program Classics for Kids for WGUC in Cincinnati. She has produced Metropolitan Opera broadcast features, NPR reports and music specials, and arts organizations’ podcasts. She is also a speaker, emcee, media coach, and the radio voice of Arizona Opera.