Handel – Messiah / Claus Guth / Vienna, 2009 (2)

(Previous section here.)

So, to start again with the sign language performer. With the sign language, we are seeing a communication that cannot be understood directly. The communication can be understood only in an abstract or impressionistic way, and even then, not completely. We’re being pushed away from trying to figure out a literal meaning.

And this probably points at the best way to understand the relationship between what we see on the stage and what the oratorio is literally about. The ‘story’ on the stage and the biblical story of the oratorio are not related in the way that what happens on the stage and what happens in the music and text of an opera are normally related. Here, while the one is not unrelated to the other, I would not say that they are the same story. Trying to draw too close a parallel between the man who commits suicide and the Jesus of the oratorio is probably the wrong way to approach this – this is not an allegory.

And we know nothing about the story we see on stage other than what we see. The characters have no names – the track listing for the DVD lists only the names of the performers. We are firmly outside of this series of events as far as literal meaning – there is nothing in the music/text that gives us any particulars in a narrative sense about what happens on the stage. So, as with the sign language performer, we can ask what it evokes in a general sense, and that’s about it. We get abstract representations of certain types of relationships between people, and abstract evocations of emotion with words that sometimes interact very closely with what happens on the stage, and sometimes not. In the baptism scene, for example, the fit between text and events is now and then very close. But more often the words of the libretto and the events they are placed next to are related simply by the feelings they evoke, not by the actual content of the text.

And many of the emotions in the story we see on stage turn on failed or incomplete or problematic communications – people trying to do or say things that they don’t quite succeed in doing or saying. There are pieces missing, which seems related to the presence of the sign language performer, who as a character sometimes communicates, incompletely, with the others – whatever she is saying is never quite evident to them. There is a sense of the whole thing meaning more than it seems to, or reaching for a meaning that no one can quite articulate, but what it does mean, or whether it means anything at all, is (deliberately, I think) an open question.

The way this works also raises the question of whether this story is a specifically religious one or not. I mean, yes, among the gifts brought for the baby’s baptism are three stuffed lambs, and later there is a scene in a room with a painting of Jesus on the wall, so clearly religion is part of the story. But. The effect of the staging is to create a sort of alternate version of the sequence of emotions described in the libretto. The libretto relates the story of Jesus in a way that contains a series of evocations of specific sorts of emotion. The action on stage evokes that same series of emotions, but via a different context – it gets to the same places as the libretto and in the same order, but it gets there a little differently. So you end up with the emotional content of the story that is in the text but abstracted from the literal sense of the text. Which is a very handy way of universalizing a work that might seem to be specific to one religion.

And this is where the music comes in.

(Next section here.)