George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is a performance with a wow factor that can singularly herald the Christmas season. Some of its elements are among the most recognizable in sacred music. The “Hallelujah” chorus, recognizable to everyone, is the most powerful in Western music.
Combine that incredible history and amazing music with an inventive ballet that echoes tableaux of great art that depicts the life of Christ and you have the single best representation of the beauty of the Christ story. The Carolina Ballet’s version of Handel’s Messiah, performed at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium from Nov. 27th through Dec. 1st, is truly a work of art.
The history of Handel’s eminent work underlines his talent as an Baroque composer with operas, concertos, and oratorios to his credit. The composition of the Messiah took Handel only 24 days to write after he received the libretto from Charles Jennens, a devout Anglican, who had worked with Handel previously on other works. The commentary on Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, and ascension extracted texts from the major recognized versions of the story: the King James Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Written in three parts, as were most of Handel’s operas, the parts were then separated into scenes by Jennens.
The Carolina Ballet’s version of this masterpiece includes the North Carolina Master Chorale, a 40-voice chorus, with four soloists (Abra Carroll Nardo, Evelyn McCauley, David Wiehle and David Melnik), as well as chamber musicians conducted by Alfred E. Sturgis. The Messiah is danced by Marcelo Martinez, the principal couples are Jan Burkhard, Sokvannara Sar, Lara O’Brien, and Eugene C. Barnes III, and the soloist women are Alicia Fabry, Sarah Newton, Randi Osetek, and Lindsay Purrington. They are joined by a congregation of 13 dancers.
Carolina Ballet‘s artistic director Robert Weiss choreographed the ballet in 1998 and 1999 to be presented with five singers, orchestral music, and artistic tableaux. Together, this version’s the musicians, singers, and dancers create a composition that Handel himself would have extolled. The settings are simple with the use of color acting as an indication of emotion. This is truly the performance of the season, which is why this reviewer is amazed that the theater was not completely full.
The show opens with the congregation gathered in St. Paul’s Cathedral for worship. Thus begins the story-within-the-story. The congregation celebrates Handel’s work and share their enthusiasm for the story that defines their religious beliefs. As they celebrate, they also recommit to their faith. A soloist appears on stage, dressed as a minister, his solo highlighting the revelation that their spiritual plane is still something for which they should strive. The congregation experiences the refiner’s fire, are comforted, share a vision, come through with understanding and are soothed by an angelic spirit. The metaphorical movement of coming into that understanding is beautifully wrought with the use of a large black drapery that the congregation passes beneath as four of the dancers hold the corners. The dramatic effect is a powerful one, with the congregation passing underneath, then the drapery billowing over them until each comes out individually.
Another incredibly effective technique of the ballet is the arrival of an angel whose wings are large and golden and held by other members of the troupe. They support the wings and her, following her across the stage as she blesses the congregation with her grace. The couple celebrates the birth of their child, leading right into the tableaux of the birth of the Messiah. A long piece of blue fabric is wound around the dancer representing Mary after which a celestial song rises to give praise for the gift. As the congregation revels in its happiness, the chorus of “Hallelujah” closes the first part.
The second half of the ballet showcases the magnificent talent of Marcelo Martinez, whose portrayal of the Messiah is strong and moving. When he meets Mary Magdalene, it is obvious that he is coming to terms with his own power as a healer and his role of working with mankind in spite of their sins. He forgives her in a beautiful pas de deux, and she comforts him.
Flowing materials are once again employed to depict the act of Jesus walking on water. Martinez commands the stage as the Messiah with a presence that alternates between benevolence and pain as he leads his disciples, then finds they have rejected him.
The troupe is onstage once more when they take on the role of the disciples as Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. The ultimate crucifixion is heartbreakingly beautiful, using the dancers’ shadows against the back wall to highlight the tragedy. When the resurrected Messiah appears to the congregation, they dance for joy. Again and again, he appears throughout time, and his purity is depicted through the use of white, leading into Part III.
According to Biblical references, the color white is a symbol of purity and in ballet, the white act signifies the balance and coherence of the choreography. Mary Magdalene and the Mother Mary find the angel who tells them that Jesus has arisen and Christ appears once again. The congregation comes together, then the women dance, a dance that is both serene and full of praise.
In the chorus, the whole troupe/congregation comes together one last time to lift Christ above them, assisting his ascension into heaven, reassuring all that God is with everyone and as long as they believe, all is right with the world.
At the end of the performance, the audience rose to its feet, both in appreciation and celebration of the dancers, singers, and musicians. The sheer length of this tour de force is demanding on both the chorale and the ballet dancers, but this reviewer was astonished that the dancers were as passionate during the third part as they were from the very beginning.
The holiday season is one that most spend in shopping malls and filled with anxiety about family visits; but if everyone could start off the season experiencing a performance that is both as holy and as dramatically satisfying as this one, they would be reminded that the reason for the season is a passionate one.
SECOND OPINION: Nov. 29th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Denise Cerniglia: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2013/11/carolina-ballet-exalted/; and Nov. 23rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/11/23/3396095/messiah-leads-juggle-trans-atlantic.html.
Messiah (1742 oratorio): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messiah_%28Handel%29 (Wikipedia).
George Frideric Handel (German-born British composer, 1685-1759): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Frideric_Handel (Wikipedia).
Charles Jennens (English librettist, 1700-73): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Jennens (Wikipedia).
Robert Weiss (director and choreographer): http://www.carolinaballet.com/pages/staff-directory-entry/robert-weiss (Carolina Ballet bio) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Weiss_%28choreographer%29 (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.com/.