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Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Unusual presentation made the work more accessible and understandable to general audiences. (Review by Keith Millar)

George Frideric Handel’s magnificent oratorio Messiah is arguably one of the greatest pieces of sacred music ever written. Every year at Easter and Christmas, it is performed in churches and concert halls around the world. The format of performances is usually quite formal with soloists and a choir who “stand and sing”.

However, the structure of Messiah, as with most oratorios, is operatic. It has arias, choruses and recitatives and is not short on drama. So, possibly one should not have been completely taken aback to find that the Playhouse Company’s Easter Sunday production of Messiah had been dramatized and was staged as a quasi-opera.

There were no period costumes, apart from a group of the choristers who were dressed as footmen, but all the soloists played biblical characters, while the choir moved about the stage, occasionally getting involved in the dramatic action.

In addition to this, there were other theatrical tricks on display. Such as dramatic lighting, billowing smoke and changing backdrops and screens.

I, for one, have never seen a symphony orchestra engulfed in special effects smoke which had wafted down from the stage. All credit to them that they played on without missing beat despite having difficulty in seeing their scores.

It was all very impressively and professionally done under the direction of veteran theatre practitioner Ralph Lawson. However, there was more than one traditionalist in the audience who were squirming in their seats at all these bells and whistles added to a performance of their beloved Messiah.

By and large, though, it seemed as if the majority of the enthusiastic and excited audience loved these goings on and felt that it all added to the enjoyment of the occasion. Their rock concert reaction to the Hallelujah! chorus certainly confirmed this.

None of the above, however, could detract from the magnificence of Handel’s incomparable music performed with consummate skill and extraordinary beauty.

The Playhouse Company Choral, under the guidance director/ repetiteur Gerhard Geist, is very good indeed. They have strong voices in all sections and produce a powerful and balanced sound. Their rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus was resounding and triumphant and will be remembered for a long time.

The Playhouse Company gathered together a strong group of soloists for this performance. They were mezzo-soprano Vuilina Anguelov, sopranos Khumbuzile Dhlamini and Nozuko Yeto, baritone Aubrey Lodewyk and well-known tenor Stéfan Louw. All five sang superbly and made a considerable contribution to the musical celebration.

The KZNPO, as one has come to expect, performed with aplomb. They seem to respond well, as did the choir, to the sympathetic and expressive conducting of Naum Rousine. The orchestra was not hidden away in the pit but rather packed together in the area between the end of the stage and the first rows of seating. This worked well and their proximity to the audience lent a certain intimacy to the event.

There were a few special occasions, such as for the Hallelujah Chorus, when the choir crowded right at the front of the stage and seemed to be one with the orchestra as they performed with astonishing volume, power and clarity. Certainly a goose bump and lump in the throat experience.

All in all, this production of Handel’s Messiah was an outstanding musical performance. The unusual presentation made it more accessible and understandable to the general audiences. On the other hand, it may have irritated the aficionados.

However, in the end, to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah remains an spiritual experience. – Keith Millar