musica Dei donum


Handel's Messiah staged
Holland Festival Early Music 2000

One of the most controversial productions in the history on the Holland Festival Early Music Utrecht is without any doubt the staged performance of Handel's Messiah by the American director Eric Fraad.

How does Fraad see Messiah? I quote from the programme book of the Festival 2000:

"Thematically Messiah deals with the idea of 'messiah' as a concept as well as specifically with the legend of Jesus. The first part is closely aligned with the Old Testament (it is set in Judah before the foundation of the church). The second part relates the passion of the Messiah and the foundation of the church. The third part is much like a poetic cantata, which is set at the time of the Last Judgement, which many believed to occur in the year 2000. I believe this part takes place in the present time and that it portrays the covenant of the modern. I'm quite sure that in Handel's day, those in the know thought this part took place in their day. With so many tragic events as a result of zealous messianic figures (Jim Jones, David Koresh, Hitler and so many cult leaders) the concept of messiah is one which has besome extremely emotionally charged within our culture. Furthermore, Messiah is a work that shares a special stature with works like the Mona Lisa and Beethoven's Fifth."

I believe Fraad is completely wrong here. Charles Jennens, who put together the libretto, only used texts from the Bible. That doesn't leave many possibilities for an individual interpretation. Messiah isn't like the 18th century passion-oratorio, which tells a story about the passion rather than the story of the passion itself. Messiah doesn't deal with the idea of 'messiah' as a concept, as Fraad says, but with a very real, historical person, the Messiah who was promised by God in the Old Testament. That is also the conviction of the musicologist Tassilo Erhardt, who is preparing a doctoral thesis on Messiah (Händels Messias. Text - Musik - Theologie; in German). He writes in the programme book:

"The concept of the Messiah has always been one of the most important topics in the Jewish religion. God promised his elected people to send hid 'anointed one', the redeemer, as the fulfillment of the history of salvation. His coming has been foretold by the prophets in many places in the Old Testament. Faithful Jews still await his coming. For Christians, God's promise has come true through the incarnation of his son in Jesus of Nazareth. The belief in Jesus as the Messiah is therefore the fundation of Christian faith.
Against this background one can understand the furore caused when the deistic writer Anthony Collins published two books, in which he undermines this tradition, in effect calling Jesus himself into question by throwing doubt on his role as the Messiah."

In the years thereafter more than 60 publications appeared in reply to Collins' books with only one goal: to prove that Jesus was the Messiah as foretold in the Old Testament.

"Charles Jennens, the librettist of Messiah, evidently possessed at least one of these publications, Bishop R. Kidder's A Demonstration of the Messiah, in which more than half of the bible quotations used in Messiah are discussed in detail. Messiah must therefore not be seen as an oratorio like many others, but as an artistic contribution to a current theological debate. This explains also the unique form of the libretto. As its principal aim is not to tell the story of Jesus' life, but to point out that the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the Messiah are fulfilled in the person of Jesus, Jennens avoided the narratives of the gospels almost entirely and describes the life and significance of Christ by means of allusion. In the case of Messiah we are dealing with much more than a mere compilation of Bible verses. The work has a strong message to tell, and the form in which this is done is a unique form of art."

The basic principle of this festival has always been the historically informed performance practice. The main aim of this principle is to make the modern audience having a deeper insight into the music of the past and penetrating more into the heart of the music and the intentions of the composer. Therefore the criterion to assess a production like this one has to be: does it bring today's listener closer to the meaning of this work?
I believe the answer has to be: "no". He who turns the intentions of the composer around into a direction which is not historically justified and shows being out of touch with the fundamental character of the Christian faith can't possibly do justice to what the composer had in mind.
The generalisation of Messiah - the Messiah becomes a messiah - clears the way for an interpretation in which all characters which play a role in Jesus' life - but don't appear in Handels Messiah - are set into a contemporary psychiatric hospital. The head of the hospital is a controversial figure who uses unconventional therapeutic measures. "In his latest creation the Chief uses the legend of the Christian Messiah in order to effect catharsis, transformation, and a dynamic group cure. The Chief climbs inside a baroque cloud from which he will lead the experiment in the guise of God, The Lord of Hosts, and President of the Immortals."

I can't sum up the whole story: that is too complicated and too muddled. I would like to extract some elements which give an impression of the intent and character of the production.
The sections of Messiah are linked with a certain action. "Thus saith the Lord" is sung, when the Chief appears in the shape of God and frightens the patients. One of them, who thinks she is Mary Magdalene, uses her powers of seduction to brainwash and indoctrinate the Daughter of Zion, while singing "Rejoice greatly".
A young psychiatrist is seen as Messiah. During the air "Behold and see" the Inmates play out a crucifixion scene with the Young Doctor in the role of the Doubting Messiah. The descent from the cross is also played (Let all the angels of God). "The tomb of the Messiah is revealed with the young psychiatrist as the Messiah levitating within."
The intent of this production becomes most clear in the third act. It is set in a nightclub in Amsterdam in 2000. A Last Judgement Party is organised. The patient who first believed she was Mary Magdalene, does appear now as the Whore of Babylon who has the whole world in her grasp. The Lord of Hosts and the Messiah arrest the Whore of Babylon. The patient who first thought he was Isaiah, does appear now as evangelist, and he and the one who thought to be the Virgin Mary, are acting as advocates for their ally, the Whore of Babylon. Their pleas are ignored and the Whore is condemned to death. "At the moment of her execution an inmate, who represents the virtues harmony and unity, saves her (If God is before us). As was prophesied in the Old Testament messianic scriptures, all conflicts and opposites are resolved".

I find this concept totally unacceptable.
My first objection is historical. Messiah has never been performed staged in Handel's time, which makes sense, since there are no persons acting in the whole piece. A stage production doesn't do justice to what Handel obviously had in mind.
Secondly, it belongs to the essence of HIP that the intentions, not only regarding the music, but also with respect to content - the "message" if you wish -, come out well. Without sharing every thought of Erhardt he makes very clear what the message of Messiah is. Eric Fraad's interpretation is diametrically opposed to that message. The texts used in Messiah make very clear what the reasons for the coming of the Messiah are: he has to bear the guilt of man who has fallen into sin, in order to reconcile God and man. The message of Messiah is vertically orientated. Fraad turns it 90 degrees and transforms it into a piece about conflicts between people. This shows a complete lack of respect for the composer and the writer of the libretto. It is even worse: Fraad abuses Handel's music for his own ideology. The Biblical message of the reconciliation between God and man is replaced by the humanistic concept of reconciliation between human beings. That becomes very clear in the third act. The Whore of Babylon is condemned to death by the Lord of Hosts (God) and the Messiah, but she is saved by a human being, who brings reconciliation because of his own good qualities. The Biblical opposition between believers and non-believers is erased, God and the Messiah are put into the sidelines, and in the end man redeems himself under his own steam. If man were able to do that the Messiah wasn't needed. Handel's music is abused for the humanistic ideology of self-salvation. This way the heart is cut out of the Christian faith and the message of Handel's Messiah. The listener doesn't come closer to Handel's intentions, but Fraad hampers him with his own ideology.

The whole setting and the way Biblical characters are portrayed shows a total lack of knowledge of and respect for the Christian faith. I don't think that only Christians are able to perform Messiah (or Bach's Passions). But an interpreter should have at least a basic knowledge of the Christian faith. This production doesn't show anything of that kind.

I have to conclude this production banalises and ridiculises the Christian faith. The production as a whole is a blasphemy.

Johan van Veen (© 2000)