|St Paul's Covent Garden - The Actors' Church|
|Fronting Covent Garden piazza|
And why was I at St Paul’s on a Thursday evening? To hear a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ – that perennial favourite of the Christmas Season. Handel wrote his ‘Messiah’ in 1741 when he was 56 years old (and St. Paul’s was 107). In April of that year, depressed and drowning in debt, he gave what he feared might be his farewell public performance. A few months later, however, the 3rd Duke of Devonshire commissioned him to compose a new work for a benefit performance in Dublin. Handel immediately set to work and began setting a libretto of Charles Jennens, made up of texts from the King James and Great Bibles.
|George Frederick Handel, working hard|
The 'Messiah' is usually performed with a great massed choir, their song-sheets in hand, and a big orchestra. The one I went to see was entirely different – it was performed by a string quartet and a cast of 17 singers, costumed and staged, in the intimate space of St Paul’s, its altar providing the set. The company which presented it is called 'Merry Opera' and is performing this fascinating version of the 'Messiah' in half a dozen historic churches around London in the lead-up to Christmas.
Here’s how it worked: the setting is war-torn mainland Europe where, on Christmas Eve 1940, a community seeks sanctuary from the enemy in a church. The action unfolds over three days. With rather lovely ‘forties hairstyles and evocative clothing, each of the singers projects a characterisation. We see the welcoming reverend, a mother who has lost a baby, two sisters reunited, a girl who appears to have been raped, eventually an enemy soldier is captured (and released), and a young husband dies of his wounds.
This means that we encounter some unusual confluences: for example “He was despised" doesn’t refer to the dying Christ, but rather is sung about the captured enemy soldier. "Why do the nations so furiously rage together" was, however, entirely appropriate. I found the interpretation entirely absorbing and extremely clever.
This was an excellent thing to see and hear; but if I fancy the more traditional 'Messiah', there are plenty to chose from coming up across London in the next weeks. The Royal Albert Hall, for example, is offering the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with 500 massed voices. I expect everyone will stand for the "Hallelujah Chorus" there. We sat sombrely in St Paul’s – the story line didn’t seem to call for standing, though the famous Chorus was beautifully and movingly sung.
As a footnote to this, while I was looking around the web on this topic, I discovered a site called 'The Mystery Worshipper' which you might enjoy checking out. You've heard of Mystery Shoppers? Apparently volunteer Mystery Worshippers attend services hither and thither, and then add their reports to the website:
Since ancient times (ok, 1998), Ship of Fools has been sending Mystery Worshippers to churches worldwide. Travelling incognito, they ask those questions which go to the heart of church life: How long was the sermon? How hard the pew? How cold was the coffee? How warm the welcome? The only clue they have been there at all is the Mystery Worshipper calling card, dropped discreetly into the collection plate.
Here's one of their entries for St Paul's Covent Garden.
It took me ages to find a 'Messiah' clip to share with you, and this is not the greatest quality, but what lovely voice for the moving aria 'He was despised'.
Notes on Handel and the production from the Merry Opera program.