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Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience – Theatre Royal Drury Lane

This performance of Messiah promised to “immerse audiences in a powerful and theatrical new setting……. imaginative lighting design, visual effects, choreography and staging”. In the programme, the conductor, Gregory Batsleer says that in 2022 “classical music is regarded as dull and stuffy….. this isn’t about dumbing down”.

Actress Martina Laird in Handel's Messiah - The Live Experience. Credit Craig Fuller.
Actress Martina Laird in Handel’s Messiah – The Live Experience. Credit Craig Fuller.

For this particular performance, the eighty-strong London Symphony Chorus was seated raked upstage on Drury Lane’s stage, not an ideal venue for a choir as much of their impressive sound was absorbed by the heavy black drapes which surrounded them, or disappeared into the flies, or was prevented from reaching the audience by the proscenium arch. It must have been hard work but they produced a crisp sound with clear diction. I should mention that, although all the words were printed in the programme, white on very dark maroon or black, it was impossible to read them during the concert as the house lights were almost completely dimmed. (It was also impossible beforehand or during the interval!)

The orchestra was the excellent English Chamber Orchestra, again producing a very crisp, taut sound, in spite of the often very quick speeds chosen by the conductor which rarely let the music breathe or speak for itself.

Of the four vocal soloists, the most successful was Nicky Spence, well able to dramatize his role vocally: the only downside was that, because of the various cuts, especially in Part Three of the oratorio (or “musical” as the press release has it!), we heard far too little of him! John the Baptist lookalike Cody Quattlebaum also vocalised dramatically and demonstrated a very pleasant bass-baritone, only lacking the rich low notes the role required. It was a shame that he appeared not to have been informed that an abridged “Trumpet will Sound” had not been cut from the performance, as he needed to use a vocal score for this, from which he appeared to be sight-reading. All the other soloists sang from memory.

Danielle de Niese, the soprano, seemed to spend most of her time changing costume for no apparent reason, but after a tentative start demonstrated why she is so sought after. The German contralto Idünnu Muench appeared to have problems with her English vowels.

At times, three dancers (Dan Baines, Jemima Brown and Sera Maehara) joined in the musical numbers using rather angular choreography by Tom Jackson Greaves which rarely seemed appropriate for what was being sung.

At other times, two actors (Martina Laird and Arthur Darvill) interrupted the musical flow. They were billed as ‘narrators’ but in fact, did not narrate but read five uncredited poems about Hope, Sacrifice and Redemption. One felt that they might have made more impact had they learned the poems by heart rather than half-reading them: in fact, one also suspected that they had only been given the words a few hours previously with no time to properly prepare.

Upstage centre, splitting the choir in two (basses and altos on one side, tenors and sopranos on the other) was a large vertical screen on which were projected extremely bright abstract moving images (Flora & Fauna Visions GMBH) throughout the whole evening, that seemed to have no relevance whatsoever to anything else which was happening. They were often so bright that it was unpleasant and uncomfortable to look at the stage. The lighting design, by Terry Cook, was very fussy, lighting the orchestra’s feet with different colours, but also causing unnecessary lighting to spill into the auditorium, especially randomly onto the boxes and proscenium arch.

The direction by Neil Connolly also seemed too complex and often unnecessary, taking away from rather than adding to the musical performance: there were just so many layers of dance, speech, light and other distractions that Handel’s music was in danger of getting ‘lost’. It was as if Connolly felt that, having been performed continually for nearly 300 years, Handel’s Messiah needs extra ‘help’. It doesn’t! It is good enough to stand on its own!

3 Star Review

Review by John Groves

Internationally acclaimed soloists Danielle De Niese, Nicky Spence, Idunnu Münch and Cody Quattlebaum star in a visionary new classical concert experience.

With world-class musicians and innovative and imaginative lighting design, visual effects, choreography and staging, the event promises to immerse audiences in a powerful and theatrical new setting for Handel’s much-loved musical telling of the story of Christ. With its universal human themes of birth, hope, joy, suffering, sacrifice and redemption this musical biopic has captivated audiences for centuries. Come and be the first to experience this brand new adaptation.

Danielle De Niese – Soprano
Nicky Spence – Tenor
Idunnu Münch – Mezzo-soprano
Cody Quattlebaum – Bass-baritone

Arthur Darvill
Martina Laird

Gregory Batsleer – Conductor
Neil Connolly – Director
Tom Jackson Greaves – Choreographer
flora&faunavisions GmbH – Co-Concept & Multimedia Creation
Andy Graham – Sound Design
Terry Cook of Woodroffe Bassett Design – Lighting Design
P Burton-Morgan – Spoken Word
Louis Hartshorn – Producer


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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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1 thought on “Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience – Theatre Royal Drury Lane”

  1. Hmmm, sounds like a sloppy performance that did nothing for a major work that, as Mr.Groves says, is good enough to stand alone. It certainly doesn’t need adapting in this way by ill-prepared performers or a conductor who refers to classical music as being “dull and stuffy”.

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