All the Angels: Handel and the first Messiah

All the Angels: Handel and the first Messiah
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. 26 June 2015

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, part of the Shakespeare Globe on London’s South Bank, has come up with an enterprising series of candlelit musical events and, increasingly, theatrical events using music as an integral part of the production. The latest of the latter genre is ‘All the Angels: Handel and the first Messiah, a play by Nick Drake that explores Handel’s visit to Dublin where the first performance of Messiah took place on 13 April 1742.

Based reasonably accurately on the facts of Handel’s life and the Dublin story, the play was set in period, albeit there were several present day contributions to the script, for example “Fair City: Not!” and a mention of zero-hours contracts. The character of Crazy Crow (the earthy porter to the Dublin Playhouse, and a (literally) moonlighting body-snatcher) played something of a commentator role. Sean Campion played him well, switching that role with that of William Cavendish (3rd Duke of Devonshire and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time) and Charles Jennens (librettist of Messiah). The latter two came over as rather inconsequential and wimpish characters, given their status, perhaps for the purposes of the play as a foil to Handel and the other major character, the singer Susannah Cibber.

It was not accurate to imply that Handel and Susannah Cibber had only just met in Dublin, and that she was an actress who Handel trained to sing, but it made for a good story-line. In fact Cibber had started out as a singer (her father was the famed composer and organist Thomas Arne), and had sung for Handel several times before Messiah, having first met him around 10 years earlier. She only later moved into acting. But it was true that she had suffered an appalling mauling at the hands of her husband and the press after a complex sex scandal. Kelly Price was outstanding as Cibber, bringing an appealing (but historically, perhaps misplaced) innocence to the role. – together with some attractive singing. Kelly Price had earlier appeared as the 16 year-old Charles Burney (later to become an important musical commentator) in a meeting with Handel in Chester, where he was delayed on his journey to Dublin.  As in many of the scenes, well-known anecdotes and snippets of Handel’s life kept popping up, in the case of Cibber with a threatened defenestration. I’m not sure if Handel’s suggestion that “the voice starts in the fanny” has any historical basis, but it raised a laugh.

In fact there were many laughs in the first half, perhaps helped by an enthusiastic first night audience that clearly included many friends, relatives and supporters of the performers. Nine singers from the Portrait Choir sang extracts from Messiah, although their style of singing, with much vibrato, was far better suited to a later repertoire. A rather minimal band of just 2 violins, cello and harpsichord (with a trumpet appearing right at the end, as is their want) provided rather underpowered accompaniment and instrumental interludes.  Despite the period dress of the actors, the musicians were all in present day formal attire.

The second half moved into different emotional territory, starting with a rather touching discussion between Handel and Crow. His training of Cibber, particularly in her singing of ‘He was despised’ was very present day (hopefully with the exception of the ‘fanny’ bit), with encouragement to express deeply held personal emotions through the music, based on Cibber’s devastating personal experiences – “think ‘she’, sing ‘he’” was his advice for ‘He was despised’. I am not convinced that there is evidence that Handel adopted such a style of training for his singers – his grumpy moments seemed more realistic.

David Horovitch played the 57  year-old Handel as the curmudgeonly old sod that he appears to have been, the German accent that Handel retained all his life helping to project this aspect of his character. The increasing warmth between him and Cibber (although historically debatable – they had been friends for years) was touching, although there was a very slight hint at questions about Handel’s sexuality.

This will appeal to a wide audience, not just Handel fans. A bit of script tightening and a more authentic musical contribution would help. There are five more performances this weekend –

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