Staging a classic: Frederic Wake-Walker’s Messiah

Director Frederic Wake-Walker talks to Andrew Mellor about his staging of Handel’s Messiah, performed with the DSO Berlin in December 2018. This article was first published in Issue 4 of The Green Room magazine.

The full performance will be available to stream on the DSO website from 10 to 13 April 2020, as part of the orchestra’s commitment to keeping music going through the coronavirus crisis. It will also be broadcast on local Berlin/Brandenburg TV (rbb) on Easter Sunday, at 11.30pm local time.

Staging Handel’s iconic oratorio Messiah invariably induces debate. It was ever thus. “An oratorio is either an act of religion or it is not,” bristled a commentator in the Universal Spectator way back in 1743, the year Handel revealed his plans to have his work performed on stage in Covent Garden; “if it is, I ask if a company of players are fit ministers of God’s word.”

These days, questions of theatrical feasibility have replaced those of offensive blasphemy. “There’s no direct speech, there’s nobody embodying a character and it’s mostly just a description of events,” says Frederic Wake-Walker of the work itself as he prepares to stage it in Berlin later this month. “I’ve staged Jephtha before and of course I’ve seen stage productions of the other narrative oratorios, but this is completely different.”

Frederic Wake-Walker in rehearsals at Opera national du Rhin, for his production of Eugene Onegin

The director’s initial solution, in contrast to other ‘productions’ of Messiah that have been seen in London, Berlin and elsewhere in the last decade, is to avoid the theatrical altogether. “It doesn’t make any sense to theatricalise it,” he says. “So the approach I’ve taken is to think more about the dynamics between the orchestra, chorus and soloists and to think about how to place the piece in this incredible space.”

That space is the Philharmonie in Berlin, home – in addition to the Berliner Philharmoniker – to Robin Ticciati’s Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (DSO). “Robin and I had such a wonderful time working together on [Mozart’s] La finta giardiniera at Glyndebourne that we had been looking for something to do together for some time. He came up with the idea of doing Messiah.” As much as anything, it represents a perfect opportunity for Ticciati to bring his fondness for pre-Mozart repertoire to his new German symphony orchestra, schooled generally on music from later on.

Hans Scharoun’s building in Tiergarten – the world’s first vineyard-style concert hall, in which audience members are almost always in face-to-face view of one another – presents unique opportunities for such a re-imagining of Messiah in an age when concert performances outside church are the norm. “I love the space; I love the feeling that wherever you’re sitting, you’re very close,” says Wake-Walker of the Philharmonie. “We spent a long time thinking about how to use it; exploring all the different places people could be. But in the end we condensed it down. So there will be an awareness of the whole space but not much moving around. We have condensed it down to something meditative.”

Detail from a sketch of Frederic Wake-Walker’s vision for Messiah

That’s might be easier in Handel’s own instances of distillation – the three, entwined musical lines of ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’, for example – than in his often rampant and mobile choruses. “That’s something else we talked about a lot: should we have the chorus singing without scores, moving around? But again it didn’t really feel appropriate. Some of the choruses come very quickly after one another and contrast markedly. The danger is that it all gets very busy and tokenistic which, again, is something the spaces of the Philharmonie can lure you into. We’ve tried to do the opposite, to take it right down to something essential.”

‘Essential’ and ‘distilled’ don’t have to mean sterile or emasculated. “I think there is drama in the piece,” says Wake-Walker, “but that it’s more an inherent drama – it’s there in the dynamics between the performers; it’s about finding the tension in the actual act of performing rather than trying to enact a story. The way everyone is standing on the stage will be unconventional, so it will be very interesting, I hope, both visually and musically and in how those elements relate to each other.”

The list of Wake-Walker’s collaborators for his project is impressive. In addition to Ticciati, his orchestra and the RIAS Kammerchor, his soloists are Louise Alder, Magdalena Kožená, Tim Mead, Allan Clayton and Florian Boesch (“I could not imagine a better cast for Messiah,” he says). But there are non-musical accomplices too: lighting designer Ben Zamora and – taking the form of the messiah itself – dancer Ahmed Soura.

The latter have afforded Wake-Walker the opportunity to engage afresh with the Christian message, and the principle of faith, that lies at the heart of Messiah. “Ben and I decided that we didn’t want this feeling of divine light – light coming from above,” he says. “We wanted to emphasise this work’s humanity; the idea that the story and its spirituality are coming from the ground up – from humans. I haven’t tried to distance myself from the Christian message of the piece and I hope that Christians won’t feel alienated. But I have definitely tried to see it in a more humanist light and to give it a more natural angle.”

“I think there is drama in the piece, but that it’s more an inherent drama – it’s there in the dynamics between the performers; it’s about finding the tension in the actual act of performing rather than trying to enact a story.”

Soura, whom Wake-Walker collaborated with in 2013 on the dance piece Sacrificed, has helped put some of Messiah’s orthodoxies in perspective too. “Ahmed is from Burkina Faso, so he grew up with both Christianity and Islam,” Wake-Walker explains. “That provides a very different context but it’s also interesting having a dancer from Burkina Faso representing the messiah in a work that was performed in front of the King of one of history’s biggest colonizing powers.” Add to that, of course, the persistent presumption from many that Jesus was born a white Anglo-Saxon male. “I’m not trying to ram anything down anyone’s throat,” Wake-Walker says, “but there’s a certain branch of theology that suggests Jesus was representative of oppressed peoples everywhere – those who are not in power. That’s an interesting dynamic to be exploring.”

Though the performance’s concept and logistics are planned and relatively fixed, Wake-Walker has yet to rehearse with his performers before the performance on 15 December. “We only have a week,” he says. “That is a limitation, but of course limitations and restrictions are very creative things. The vocal soloists will have sung Messiah so many times and have so much experience of the piece. It’s not like preparing for an opera, where you are trying to hone everyone into a single theatrical or dramaturgical concept. It’s more about setting up a simple but dynamic physical framework with some very clear lines of direction, and letting them fill that with all their talent and experience.”

From day one, however, the director has been in discussion with his conductor. “To begin with we worked together on how the singers and the orchestra would be positioned, and since then we have been going through the piece in very fine detail and bouncing off each other.” As conductors go, is Ticciati a broadminded one? “Robin is not only a broadminded conductor; he’s a musician with an unbelievable sense of drama and theatricality and of the dynamics that exist between performers. It’s incredible, this sense he has.”

Ticciati’s talents have the high-level outlets they need these days, and so have Wake-Walker’s. He will return to La Scala next season to direct Ariadne auf Naxos, his third production for the leading Italian opera house. On the day we speak, he is gearing up for the general rehearsal of his first Peter Grimes, at Cologne Opera (the run opened on 25 November). “I am looking forward to the purity of Messiah after the madness of Peter Grimes,” he says with a chuckle. “I guess we’ll see how they go down.”

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