We were promised something different, and they delivered.
Against the Grain Theatre’s Messiah took a familiar piece and added something without disturbing the essential gold. Handel, Isaiah, Revelation (etc) are well served, in a piece entirely true to the name of the company.
Choreographer Jennifer Nichols and director Joel Ivany take what is usually a static exercise for formally attired solists, chorus & orchestra, and make it seem fresh & new. Tonight was the first performance of what I’d like to see repeated every year if at all possible.
I don’t know whom to credit between Nichols & Ivany, although the soloists deserve my first tip of the hat for undertaking this, namely Jacqueline Woodley, Krisztina Szabó, Isaiah Bell and Geoffrey Sirett. It’s a truism that singers can’t move the way actors do because of the rigors of their discipline. I had an eye-opening experience a decade or so ago at a vocal workshop, when asked to sing while tumbling on a floor. Breath control—let alone solid support—are very hard to achieve when you’re also performing such activities as walking or dancing, let alone bending or contorting.
The degree of experiment in AtG Messiah needs to be framed against that double backdrop:
- the departure from the norm (static singers in tuxes & black dresses)
- the remarkable achievement of singers, especially the four soloists, undertaking a great deal of movement during solos that are already taxing without movement
I believe they could pack a much larger space, because there’s a hunger for this kind of nourishment. Nevermind whether purists would love every number, as this isn’t a piece aimed at purists (although I’d love to step outside with the purists and argue with them, as there’s justification for everything I saw, both artistically and spiritually). Toronto’s a funny town, as I’ve observed before. Robert Lepage can do no wrong in these parts, and perhaps now so too with AtG, whose following will grow with this bold piece.
With a genuine experiment one doesn’t know what one is getting into, what the outcome will be. Nothing could be more “against the grain” than that sense of wondering whether it will work, of seeing artists undertaking a project where they put themselves at risk. I sensed that there were a few drivers or influences at work that influenced the way the movement was composed. I suspect that in rehearsal some soloists were bolder or more ambitious in what they undertook, over-eager to bound around the stage (and perhaps show their enthusiasm for the director & choreographer) during numbers where some of that load could have been shouldered by the chorus. I wondered as I watched the experiment whether things unfolded in rehearsal as expected (ie choreographic choices for a particular soloist). Would Ivany and/or Nichols do anything differently were they to stage it again next Christmas (with the benefit of hindsight)?
Have i mentioned everyone? Ah yes, I should mention this small chorus, a very capable group of Toronto singers mostly working from memory, and also conscripted into the corps de ballet. There was so much to take in, from the dramaturgical choices, for instance in choral numbers sometimes given to the four soloists by Music Director Christopher Mokrzewski, the deployment of bodies around the stage by Ivany & Nichols, and the interpretations of those intrepid soloists. And the collaborative team that is AtG really seems to revolve around the teamwork between the two key players, namely Mokrzewski and Ivany, stretching the basic template in so many ways, but ultimately being rock solid. Nothing Ivany throws at Mokrzewski –including rebel elves stealing the baton out of his hand–ever phases him. The small orchestra filled the space wonderfully, using modern instruments with what i’d call a historically enlightened approach (hep rather than my usual “HIP”?), drawing on the best historically informed practices. Mokrzewski has been exposed to the best (both Harry Bicket at the COC and the assorted talents local & imported at Opera Atelier), developing his own approach. Whatever quirkiness was blocked onstage or in the auditorium, Maetro M followed without fail.
All four soloists handled their physical challenges, although Nichols pushed each in different directions, finding a substantially unique movement vocabulary for each, perhaps channelling the music, or possibly the character of the singer. I had the impression that Ivany understood each of the voices as a kind of consistent character, or found a through-line for each one that probably governed the movement Nichols assigned to each. Soprano Woodley was largely celebratory, having so many of the happiest moments, where alto Szabó was pushed in a darker direction befitting her role delivering some of the darkest lines of the entire piece, particularly in “He Was Despised”. Yet later I was reminded of Fred & Ginger, watching Szabó and tenor Bell during “Oh Death”: and why shouldn’t they seem to be having fun with that happy piece?
Speaking of fun –spoiler alert! If you’re seeing AtG Messiah Sunday stop reading, come back tomorrow—the most joyful presence was surely bass Sirett. “The trumpet shall sound” was genuinely celebratory. “All we like sheep” was an unexpected show-stopper.
Where does AtG go from here? I think there’s no place that’s off limits, no text that’s inappropriate. Tonight was a fabulous first time –like their first Bohème in a bar—taking Messiah where it had never been before. I heard beer bottles falling over during Messiah solos, laughter and happy applause of a sort I don’t usually associate with this work. Yes we all stood for the Hallelujah Chorus (and what an odd town this is considering how well it was sung for a brief boisterous singalong).
Now I dearly hope it will be back next year.