There’s nothing simple about Messiah/Complex, a new film that’s currently available for streaming from the Against the Grain Theatre website until January 7th.
Complex? It’s an adaptation of Handel’s popular oratorio, a co-production of Against the Grain Theatre and Against the Grain Theatre TV in partnership with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. I’m not sure I understand that sentence, let alone the legalities or the logistics. Directed by Joel Ivany & Renellta Arluk, conducted by Johannes Debus, this is not your usual Handel’s Messiah. Not by a long shot.
The credits tell a very Canadian story, listing units in every province except Saskatchewan, and even including one each for Yukon, Nunavut & NWT. I suspect the omission of the one province irks or irritates the creative team, who seem to have gone to great pains to be inclusive in every sense of the word, giving almost every number in the oratorio a bit of a twist. Sometimes it’s linguistic, venturing into French, Arabic, Dene, Inuktitut, (and more), sometimes it’s political, when the text is changed, tweaked ever so slightly. And of course politics comes into the filming.
While the phrase “Messiah Complex” is a pathology, I am not sure that’s what this title means even if the producers are taking advantage of its currency, the meaning being largely opaque. And if it is a bit of a shot at contemporary Christianity? I think they can defend that choice, because Christianity can’t claim the moral high ground, not after errors such as the Residential Schools, and that’s only the most obvious instance. Messiah / Complex feels refreshingly positive and new, considering that Handel’s text comes from the King James Bible of 1611. But the film often gives us a renewed reading in a new language, an opportunity to shed some of the abusive associations in new phrasing.
The best example I can give happens a little over 20 minutes into the film, when we get our first radical revision, from Diyet in Yukon, singing not in English but Southern Tutchone (a language as I discovered with a little googling & reading).
Who is Diyet? I found Diyet & the Love Soldiers. This is not your usual classical music persona.
And her brave face? right there in the film, singing a changed version of Handel & the Biblical text.
“Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son” becomes “This is our land and our people too”.
“And shall call his son Emmanuel, God With Us” becomes “Creator has made all of this land (for us all)”
No it’s not the usual voice you’d hear in a Handel oratorio, one of several inspired choices. The team behind Messiah / Complex were curators assembling something different from the usual, something (dare I say it) against the grain.
Not “Oh thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” but “Who brings this good news to us?”
Not “get thee up into the high mountain” but “share the news from the top of the mountain”: as we see huge mountains in the images before us, a singer walking before them. It’s breath-taking in every sense.
Usually one gets the classically trained singing voice needed to fill the big concert hall and to be heard over the orchestra. Unavoidably, that comes with the added tendency to seem like a show-off. Indeed that was a tendency in the baroque, to embellish, to impress us. But instead we get a gentle voice intimately close –like the singer’s face who we see in a close-up. As a result that gives us a totally different sort of authenticity.
Up to this point watching the film, I had been conflicted, resisting. Perhaps that’s my tight-ass old-fashioned love of the Handel Messiah? resisting the way AtG’s press release came at me with the hype about all the collaborators. Yes it’s a complex project and wow I doubt they could pull this off in any other country. Yes it’s so quintessentially Canadian. There’s some irony in my resistance, as I recognize that wait a minute,…. hey isn’t this precisely what I’ve been demanding almost like a mantra?
A Canadian product from Canadian artists? And here it is.
And suddenly watching this solo I’m all in, completely won over by the legitimacy of this segment (baptized with a flood of tears). Diyet is shown walking by a road on a snowy day in the Yukon with magnificent mountains in the distance.
When I think of the many live performed Messiahs I have seen, not unlike most of the operas I’ve seen, one always has to admit “ymmv”, or “your mileage may vary”. Rarely does one get a perfect chorus AND a perfect orchestra AND thoughtful leadership from the conductor(s) AND the right voice from the tenor ….AND the bass AND the alto AND the soprano all clicking in all the numbers. Instead of drama (meaning mine as I wonder how they will manage the challenges, how they will respect tradition or boldly try something new), we’ve got a different soloist –and often a different language & culture—for each solo. Most of the drama is gone, indeed the tension is mostly absent. A purist might quibble with choristers smiling sweetly as they sing “and he shall purify”, a very dark scary text. But it’s a fun performance by UPEI Chamber Choir, joy evident in this as in every choral segment of the film. And most of the solos also bubble over with joy, even if some are solemnly mysterious, spiritual without being religious.
There is so much more I could say, so many more soloists to mention…. While YMMV implies failures, I merely meant that sometimes we’re honoring Handel and the King James text, other times boldly going into new territory: which I welcomed. While some may prefer a more conservative approach, I believe that the generations who are happy in the realm of Zoom & spotify & the download will see nothing objectionable, while seeing much to applaud & admire.
I can imagine the challenging choices the creative team faced, between sometimes honouring a conventional & recognizable approach to Handel vs sometimes giving us something with an edge. In the end I welcomed all the transgressions, the moments that for me are the most genuine & spiritual.
I’m going to invoke a technical term from the film-music realm. We speak of music that is “diegetic” and “non—diegetic”. Woody Allen gave a classic illustration in Bananas (1971), in fact sending it all up. As his character gets the good news that he’s invited to dinner with the President we hear harp music: as though wow this were the feelings in his head. That’s the usual way film music works, where invisible musicians underscore the events on the screen. And so the music seems to be non-diegetic, emotions inspired by events in the story.
Ah but we discover that the music is coming from a harpist practicing in his closet.
So while at a few select moments in the film we do get to see the Toronto Symphony led by conductor Johannes Debus in the opening Sinfonia and again in the Hallelujah Chorus (which seems apt given that we also see the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir singing on King St in front of Roy Thomson Hall, the usual home base for the TSO & TMC), for most of the proceedings they are invisible, the non-diegetic score, for their participation in this film.
When we watch the UPEI Chamber Choir (“And He shall purify”), or Le Cheour Louisbourg in Moncton (“For Unto Us a Child is Born”) or Halifax Camerata Singers (“Worthy is the Lamb” & the final Amen), we see the ensemble’s conductor leading a choir. But no, we don’t see the TSO. The music invisibly accompanies, presumably from a recording session accomplished with the choir. At times the choir poses rather than singing, at times they are lip synching, although it’s pretty clear that the singing was done elsewhere given the absence of microphones, especially in that shot on King St West.
So it’s a film that doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It makes an intriguing comparison with Rituaels, the new “film-concert” from collectif9 that I reviewed recently, the genre in quotes because I’ve never seen it before. Collectif9 made it crystal clear through their camerawork that we were watching the players play a concert, even though there were lots of filmed moments interspersed: just as in Messiah/Complex. Clearly we’ve come to a different performance realm with new rules. But I am reserving judgment for now as to whether this is temporary, brought on by the pandemic, or perhaps the new normal.
Fareed Zacharia whom you may know from “GPS”, his Sunday program on CNN, has a new book that I’m reading called Ten Lessons for a Post-pandemic World. Fareed points to Kodak’s failure to adapt to a digital world, filing for bankruptcy, and citing the huge share of the entertainment industry spending that goes to gaming, exceeding that of Hollywood & the music business put together. As you’ve likely noticed, some companies are getting rich right now while others fall by the wayside. Those who have an online presence –such as the TSO & Against the Grain—likely will have a future. As I lament that the Canadian Opera Company, who presented many brilliant productions over the past decade that I wish I could see again in a digital/virtual format, I’ve been enjoying the free online offerings from the Metropolitan Opera. Whether the in-person concerts & operas manage to fully come back or not surely the virtual presentations and their associated revenue stream are here to stay.
Messiah/Complex is a beautiful film from AtG & the TSO, with all these collaborators working in so many provinces & territories. Especially given the current challenges artists & companies face, this film is a healthy omen, perhaps an indication of great things to come.