There are so many musically rewarding and genuinely dramatic Handel operas which are never performed by English National Opera. So I'm puzzled why they've chosen instead to stage the inherently unstageable Messiah. Its three sections - birth, death, resurrection - might recall a three act drama, but that's as far as it goes.
There is no character-based action, no narrative thread. Its qualities are largely descriptive, not theatrical. And sure enough, Deborah Warner's new production offers no more insights than the usual concert-style performance. Perhaps the overture scene's suspended forest of gilded lilies metaphorically acknowledges the futility of the exercise. The music alone suffices.
But there's a stage to be filled, and it's populated by ordinary-looking people going about their everyday business, their numbers boosted for the finale by genuine members of the local community. Vast video backdrops alternate cityscapes with pious artworks, the only hint of the work's religious element. The opening 'Comfort ye my people' sees hymn sheets laid out in an empty church then gathered up, unused. An accurate picture of modern society perhaps but a warning that Handel's biblical texts will not be taken at face value.
There's a hospital bed for the saviour's birth, a school nativity play for the nativity scene, there's a picnic and even a spot of ironing. Kim Brandstrup's sinuous choreography transforms the scourging and crucifixion into elegant dances that obscure the real meaning. A small child bombs around the set for no apparent reason other than upping the cuteness factor.
Warner's attempts to bind the fragmentary texts by engineering non-existent narrative connections only make matters worse. ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ is affectingly sung by Sophie Bevan as a dying woman in a hospital bed. But a farcical minute later she's on her feet waving a petrol station bouquet with a chorus of resuscitated corpses. And because a properly furious 'Thou shalt break them' would jar against the joyful Hallelujah Chorus which follows, John Mark Ainsley's ironic delivery reduces it to a joke.
The performances were better than the production deserved, with a searingly truthful 'He was despised' from Catherine Wyn-Rogers the evening's high spot. John Mark Ainsley was underpowered but compelling, and Brindley Sherratt worked hard in a part that's high and fast for him.
The ENO chorus enunciated Handel's multi-stranded lines crisply enough, but lacked gusto, a criticism that could also be levelled at the low-octane and often sluggish conducting of Laurence Cummings. With luck, the musical side should come together more as the run progresses. The production though is beyond redemption.