Handel – Messiah / Claus Guth / Vienna, 2009 (1)

I appreciate some of Claus Guth’s productions more than others. Some of them make sense to me right away, for example the Don Giovanni for Salzburg that is set in the woods, or the Ariadne auf Naxos that takes place in a restaurant. In other cases it takes me a few viewings to appreciate what is going on and after a few rounds of snide remarks I end up liking it, e.g. the infamous Le Nozze di Figaro. (There is a noisy subset of opera fans who seem to dislike that for what seem to me the wrong reasons – I mean, I can see, theoretically, why someone might not like it, but it’s not because Anna Netrebko doesn’t ‘sound like’ Susanna, whatever that means.) At times Guth’s stagings actively irritate me. Così fan tutte, for example. I should probably watch that again sometime to see whether I’ve changed my mind or not.

I like this version of the Messiah. I think it’s interesting and appropriately puzzling and strange – and it gets at the emotional core of Handel’s music in a really striking way.

To begin with the basics. This is a staged version of a work that was not written to be staged. Taken at face value, the oratorio is a description rather than a dramatization of a well-known story. And yet we do get a story here – in a sense.

What you see on the stage for this oratorio is different sections of the interior of a building. The walls are lavender and the floor is carpeted. It looks like any and all of the things it stands in for – a funeral parlor, a hotel, an office. A potted plant and various items of furniture of the type you would find in such locations turn up from time to time. There are a lot of doors, but you never see windows – light sources are always just out of view.

And what happens? It’s hard to say. If you were to switch off the sound and merely watch what goes on, what you would see is roughly this. A funeral is taking place. Prominent among the mourners are people who might be the spouse, siblings and perhaps nephew of the dead man. Two of the man’s brothers become agitated during the funeral, and one opens the coffin and lifts up one of the corpse’s arms, revealing that the death was a suicide. There is also a minister, who reappears at several other points in the story. Then there is a flashback to the baptism of a baby, the child of the man who later dies. The man’s wife is upset, and the woman who might be her sister-in-law is unable to comfort her. One of her husband’s brothers does. We are shown a glimpse of the professional life of the man who dies, and the frustrations of it. He and his wife are estranged – they are several times on opposite sides of a wall. He kills himself, and the body is discovered by the angrier of his two brothers, the one who opened the coffin at the funeral. The family struggles to make sense of what has happened, but since this is not really a story, there is no real ending.

So, this is the gist of what you see. I mentioned the sound being turned off, and this was intentional, because there is another figure on the stage, a young woman who communicates in sign language – quite stylized sign language. The gestures are bigger and closer to dance. I don’t know what she is saying. I watched this with the subtitles off because the oratorio is in English, but I turned them back on to see if the sign language was subtitled. It appears not to be. At some points if I had to guess it seems as if she echoes parts of the sung text, but at a delay. At the end of “His yoke is easy” she continues, silently of course, after the chorus has ended. And what she signs during the overture I could not even guess. I don’t think it matters. This is not exactly text: rather, this is movement on stage.

Or, even better, this is movement that is clearly communication of a specific kind but staged in such a way that what we see of it is not the communication itself in any direct way. We get an impression, a kind of general import, but that’s all. That is, it’s an (I assume) real communication turned into an abstract thing that the audience deals with — that the audience of necessity deals with — at a few removes, abstraction-wise, from what it literally says.

If it’s a made-up sign language, the same point stands, and perhaps works even better. The sign language is a representation of some concrete, literal thing being communicated, but we have absolutely no access to that concrete literal thing, and so we have to deal with it, again, at several removes from whatever it literally says. I think I prefer this version, actually. If I’m wrong, then I’m wrong, but I’m willing to risk it.

(Next part here.)