The Carolina Ballet’s version of Handel’s Messiah, which opened on Nov. 22nd and runs for four more performances on Nov. 24-26 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium is a brilliant representation of the arts of dance, music, art, literature. This holiday tour de force, directed and choreographed by Robert Weiss, with assistance from choreographers Timour Bourtasenkov, Amy Sewert, and Tyler Walters, showcases the strengths of the Carolina Ballet’s stars, and tenderly conveys the story at the backbone of the Christmas season: Jesus Christ’s life. It is visually breathtaking, emotionally rich and complicated, and powerfully staged.
This production brings together several masterpieces in a way that showcases the best North Carolina has to offer in the creative arts. The story of George Fridric Handel’s Messiah being related to a congregation gathered in the architectural magnificence of Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral begins the creative synergy that continues throughout the performance. Handel’s music, interpreted by conductor Alfred E. Sturgis, is delivered gorgeously by the Chamber Musicians and the North Carolina Master Chorale, with soloists, Ginger Green (soprano), Evelyn McCauley (mezzo soprano), James F. Farlow (tenor), and Lewis Moore (bass).
Even artwork (most of it owned by the North Carolina Museum of Art) is incorporated into the performance through the use of tableaux of well-known works of art that recreate scenes from Christ’s life. And artwork is brought even deeper into the performance through the use of breathtaking lighting and sets created by Jeff A.R. Jones and Ross Kolman. But the true star of the night are the dancers with the incomparable Marcelo Martinez, commanding the stage as the Messiah himself, with incredible performances by Margaret Severin-Hansen, Nikolai Smirnov, Lara O’Brien, and Yevgeny Shlapko.
As the program notes state, Handel and Christopher Wren didn’t live during the same era, but this presentation shows Handel’s work being introduced to the congregation (made up of members of the company); and when the scene ends with the dancers melting into the background, the magic is solidified, and the audience is lifted by both the story itself, as well as the talent onstage.
The simple addition of stage lighting depicts the cathedral’s windows and white draping dramatically lowered from the ceiling frames the tableaux of the Christ baby. The cathedral actually becomes a member of the cast and is so alive that when the lighting frames the dancers, doubling them as shadows on the background, the cast doubles.
James Farlow’s call to the congregation, while he is dressed like a minister from the time period, also calls the audience to this story within a story of the creation of a creation: the story of Handel’s deliverance of his retelling of the Christ story to the congregation, the creation of Handel’s music, and the creation of the Messiah himself. When the North Carolina Master Chorale’s voices underscore the opening, the audience feels lifted by the spiritual significance.
Marcelo Martinez is masterful as the Messiah himself. His leaps are high, powerful, and effortless. His physical presence onstage is one that commands attention. His turns and lifts are strong, crisp and, again, effortless. He seems to improve with every performance and this one is a pleasure to watch.
Other dancers also shine in this production. The soloist women are the ballet’s A game: Amanda Babayan, Alicia Fabry, Ashley Hathaway, and Alyssa Pilger. Fabry is a dancer who always draws the eye, a passionate performer in complete control of her own style. Pilger, Fabry’s doppelgänger, is delicate and sensitive, one of the company’s understated talents. Babayan and Hathaway are both in their second season as soloists and coming into their own, keeping up with Alicia Fabry and Alyssa Pilger.
The principal couples — who fill in as members of the congregation or play double roles in the performance — are mesmerizing in their own right. Margaret Severin-Hansen flies effortlessly into Nikolai Smirnov’s arms when in their pas de deux, but she also flies effortlessly as the archangel (though her “wing men” were sometimes out of sync) and is as exciting a partner for Lara O’Brien, as for Smirnov.
Nikolai Smirnov substituted for Sokvannara Sar on opening night and was a good fit, although he seemed more comfortable with his solo later in the performance than he did as the partner for the incomparable Margaret Severin-Hansen. Smirnov’s physical build reminds this writer of another Russian: Mikhail Baryshnikov, but his style is more tentative than brash.
Lara O’Brien and Yevgeny Shlapko are equally matched. O’Brien, always an elegant dancer, is capable of drawing the audience’s attention even if she simply tilts her head; but when she flies into a lift, she truly appears to hold herself up in the air without her partner’s support. Her mastery of the dancing art form elevates her work to the point where she creates memorable moments.
Shlapko, a well-seasoned principal, is equally comfortable with O’Brien and dances with confidence and strength. Their pas de deux is crisp, their lifts high, and their partner-work impeccable. They’re well-matched.
But the pas de deux of the evening was actually an unconventional one between the two female principals: Lara O’Brien and Margaret Severin-Hansen. The two dancers couldn’t be more different, in both looks and style. O’Brien is the tall and elegant, classical, crisp and clean dancer with long lines and effortless lifts. Severin-Hansen is the smallest member of the company, but she uses every centimeter of her body with her expressive movements and light-as-a-feather leaps that make it appear she is truly flying. Together, they complement each other and dance as magnificently as any pair. Simply gorgeous.
If you haven’t understood it by now, the Carolina Ballet’s Messiah is not the only holiday ballet, but it is this reviewer’s favorite. This not-to-be-missed event will be at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium throughout Thanksgiving week, Nov. 22 and 2426. Start the holiday with the story that is the reason for the season.
The Carolina Ballet presents Handel’s MESSIAH, featuring the North Carolina Master Chorale at 8 p.m. Nov 24, 2 and 8 p.m. Nov 25, and 2 p.m. Nov 26 in in the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $32.15-$81.15, except $20 per ticket for college students with ID and free to high school students with ID. Click here for details.
Carolina Ballet Box Office: 919-719-0900 or https://www.carolinaballet.com/get-tickets.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115203/836166.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-719-0900 or http://www.carolinaballet.com/get-tickets/group-sales/.
SHOW: https://www.carolinaballet.com/program/messiah1, https://www.carolinaballet.com/pages/repertoire-entry/P33, https://www.facebook.com/events/1960287227542422/, and http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/event/messiah-7181.
2017-18 SEASON: https://www.carolinaballet.com/program/2017-2018-season.
PRESENTER: http://www.carolinaballet.com/, https://www.facebook.com/CarolinaBallet, https://twitter.com/carolinaballet, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolina_Ballet.
Messiah (1741 English-language oratorio): https://www.britannica.com/topic/messiah-religion (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messiah_(Handel) (Wikipedia).
George Frideric Handel (German composer, nee Georg Friedrich Händel, 1685-1759): https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Frideric-Handel (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Frideric_Handel (Wikipedia).
Robert Weiss (Carolina Ballet‘s co-artistic director and choreographer): http://www.carolinaballet.com/pages/staff-directory-entry/robert-weiss (Carolina Ballet bio) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Weiss_%28choreographer%29 (Wikipedia).
North Carolina Master Chorale (Resident Chorus of the North Carolina Symphony): http://ncmasterchorale.org/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/NCMasterChorale (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/NCMasterChorale (Twitter page), and https://www.youtube.com/user/NCMasterChorale (YouTube).
Dawn Reno Langley is the award-winning author of The Mourning Parade, as well as other novels, children’s books, nonfiction books, essays, short stories, poems, and articles. She is the creator of The Writer’s Hand Journals and runs workshops on using journals in every walk of life. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds the MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Union Institute and University. She lives in Durham with her dog, Izzy. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.