A Christmas tree on stage was the first sight I could get while looking for my seat in the Suntory Hall. Today is alright Christmas Eve, but other than the fact that Christmas and Handel’s Messiah share the same theme, should there be a relation (other than the fact that theatres like to present it at this time of the year)? Let us not forget that Handel himself did not devise it as a Christmas entertainment and that the Dublin première actually happened in April. Does this sound like idle talk? Maybe – but I wonder if the atmosphere devised by Handel has anything to do with the benign feel of “season spirit”? He was despised, Why do the nations rage so furiously together have anything to do with eggnog and mistletoe? Even if you think of the sunniest moments in this oratorio, such as Rejoice greatly or Ev’ry valley, do they sound comfy to your ears? Not to mine – and I often think that this gemütlich Christmas atmosphere rather robs than adds something to what Handel wanted to express in this piece.
This afternoon’s performance, for instance – as many that I have seen in this season – had all the sharp corners rounded off. Even when tempi were brisk, the accents lacked incisiveness, the theatrical gestures hinted at at most, the orchestra lacking body and rather edgy in the most exciting moments. Handel was an opera composer nurtured in the Italian tradition and acquainted with French style – the ascetic Lutheran atmosphere that adds a sense of spiritual concentration in early Bach cantatas unfortunately does not make this music blossom in all its intense and exuberant chiaroscuro. Some performances take off, some do not – the initial spark was not there and one could feel conviction decreasing as the evening approached.
If I could single out two successful elements today, those would be: the chorus and the bass soloist. The Bach Collegium Japan’s chorus sings with exemplary fluency and clarity. The lack of animation eventually caught them, but they resisted as much as they could. I would also say that I have heard far less proficient English pronunciation in Germany and France. As for Roderick Williams, whom I saw in the part a while ago in Berlin, he alone had the sense of communicating to an imaginary congregation and unfailing enthusiasm. Moreover, his divisions are admirably fluent and he now colours the text even more efficiently. Since we had the 1743 version, he sang But who may abide with praiseworthy flexibility. Tenor Makoto Sakurada too is very adept in fioriture and his voice has more presence than most Handel tenors’. That said, he must really find a way to find some joy in his singing. As it is, he seems to be having very little fun and that tension builds up into his tight high register – the high a’s in Thou shalt break them were rather lunged at than truly sung. Countertenor Clint van der Lind maybe was not in his best voice – he seemed ill at ease around the break in O thou that tellest and, even if he did warm up for the rest of the performance, his voice never gave the illusion of naturalness that great countertenors never fail to produce. Johanette Zommer’s soprano often lacked focus and sounded uncomfortable either in high or low notes. She seemed more aware of the text than both tenor and alto, but true ease was never there. Finally, I really do not think that it was a good idea for one tenor and one soprano from the chorus to borrow some arias and recitatives from the soloists – good as they were, the soloists themselves were all in all still more interesting than they ultimately proved to be.