Mozart used a 1775 translation of the original English text into German for his 1789 "version" of Handel's Messiah. Handel wrote the piece in 1741 to a text by Charles Jennes, compiled from the Bible. Oratorio wasn't Mozart's natural genre, although he did write, early on, Die Schuldigkeit des Ersten Gebotes, (K 35) and a piece we looked at here on Classical Explorer a while ago: Betulia Liberata; it was Baron van Swieten who commissioned Mozart's version, which changes Handel's orchestration and, apart form the obvious change of English words into German ones, also changes the voice ranges of some numbers.
Staging oratorio has become much more common over the last few decades. It was Robert Wilson who does the honours here, a director who has perhaps best been knwon in his collaborations with Philip Glass (I reviewed what I described as Glass and Wilson's "minimalist behemoth" Einstein on the Beach when it came to London's Barbican in 2012 here). The minimalist nature of Wilson's staging of Messias works surprisingly well; what I loved most of all about this production was the creative dissonance between Wilson's achingly cool modernist stagecraft and the historically informed, incredibly pawerful performance from Marc Minkowski and his group Les Musiciens du Louvre, plus the absolutely magnificent Philharonia Chor, Wien. The chorus "Wahrlich, Wahrlich!" (Surely He hath borne our griefs) is incredibly powerful, and what agility they display in "Wie Schafe gehn" (All we like sheep, complete with a contribution from male ballet dancer Alexis Fousekis). The "Halleluja" chorus is fast, sprighly, joyous, the chorus singing with arms to the side, palms outwards; projected deconstructing mountainous icebergs in the background reminds us that perhaps we haven't listened to the core message of this particular messiah figure as a species, while as the dancer appears as a spaceman at the back of the stage in a Kubrick hommage.
A blue-grey cube is the home for this Messiah, with borders of white light; the back wall serves as a space for projections, or simply for holding a colour. It is within this clinical setting that Hope unfolds in the shape of the Holy Infant, onto which Wilson layers on elements of commedia dell'arte (the tenor Richard Croft at the very opening almost refreencing the Animal Trainer from Berg's Lulu). Croft sings his opening "Tröstet Zion! ... Alle Tale macht hoch" (Comfort ye ... Ev'ry Valley). After that amazing "Halleluja" chorus, Lehmkohl appears on a lonely boat singing "Ich weiß, daß mein Erlöser lebt" (I know that my Redeemer liveth), the (post-apocalyptic?) image on the product cover. At various times, an "Old Man," a wonderer appeas (Max Harris)
The soloists are uniformly excellent: I love soprano Elena Tsallagova's purity, and Weibke Lehmkuhl is a particularly impressive contralto. The bass, José Coca Loza, is phenomenal dressed as some sort of Japanese Noh character in "Warum entbrennen den Heiden?" (Why do the nations so furiously rage?), Minkowski's orchestra at its punchiest; and how modern does Minkowski the chorus make "Brecht entzwei die Ketten alle" (Let us break their bonds)! The duet between Lehmkuhl and Loza, "O Tod, wo ist dein Pfeil" (O death, where is thy sing) includes some good old fashioned flirting and ends with a kiss on the cheek. Perhaps most impressive is the hushed opening to the final "Amen" that explodes into a blaze of vocal light; the stage though remains subdued, a plea for another chance, perhaps, for man?
This certainly is not the first staged Messiah: there is one by Claus Guth from 2009, for example. But so much here feels right; and Tiziano Marcini's video direction is spot-on. It is so easy to get dragged into this immersive experience. Purists who like stand-and-deliver oratorio might wish to stay away (although they would be missing a fabulous performance if they did, and they could always turn the picture off!); but the adventurous need not hesitate.
Here's an introductory video, with excerpts and some comments from Wilson himself: