Soloists become storytellers

Creative staging will convey drama in Tacoma Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Messiah’

December 20, 2013 

Like “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol,” Handel’s “Messiah” is an arts staple this time of year. But as with the ballet and the play, directors of the famous oratorio are always faced with a decision: Change it up to make it fresh, or keep it the same way audiences have loved for 270 years.

For Geoffrey Boers, directing the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra’s annual “Messiah” at St. Charles Borromeo church, the decision was easy: Add some more staging to highlight the piece’s intrinsic themes of light and dark.

“The church is such a wide space, the sound gets dispersed,” explains Boers, of the venue where the TSO orchestra and chorus perform the work. “Some people can’t hear the words at all, and the impact ... can be lost. Last year, I moved the choir around for an arrangement that would amplify the construction and meaning of the piece. People raved about it. ... I got many requests to do it again.”

And so Boers is doing it again. But instead of moving the chorus around the church for dramatic moments – something that’s challenging for amateur singers to handle and still produce a good sound – he’s moving the soloists.

It’s all inspired by the 2010 performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Staged by opera director Peter Sellars, the performance had soloists dramatize the death of Christ using dark clothes, plain white blocks and creative staging to sing their arias and recitatives. Now on video, the performance was acclaimed in The New York Times as “a gift,” and described by conductor Simon Rattle as the most important thing the orchestra had ever done.

Now, Boers is bringing a version of that idea to Tacoma. While the local audience won’t see an erotic Judas kiss or a dead Christ lying in state as in the BPO “Passion,” his four pages of notes to the soloists conveys a highly thought-out production: from the concept of entrances from stage left for negative or sorrowful solos and from the right for positive ones, to the soprano and mezzo soloists interacting as Mary and Mary Magdalene during the recitative describing Jesus’ death (“He was cut off”). Other changes include the orchestra playing the Pifa symphony like the rowdy band of shepherds the music indicates, with Boers sitting among them, and the soprano announcing the angels from the conductor’s podium. Other entrances come from within the choir or through the audience.

“The soloists (are) the storytellers,” says Boers. “It’s to get people to think about the text in a different way.”

Such a performance, though, is a challenge. While the Berlin Philharmonic had the luxury of enough rehearsals to memorize their music, the Tacoma Symphony has just one rehearsal together in the performance space, though the choir prepares for weeks beforehand.

“I tested this amateur chorus to the best of their ability,” says Boers of last year’s show. “They have to remember cues, where to go. It was a challenge.”

But the end result, Boers says, is that the audience sees the “Messiah” in a fresh way – not just as a vehicle for favorite vocal works like the “Hallelujah” chorus and “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” but as a story recounting powerful events and themes of light in darkness.

Those themes have had echoes in real life for the TSO’s “Messiah” performances over the past few years, points out Boers: the ice storms a few years ago when power was out all around Tacoma except for the area around St. Charles; the year where the “Messiah” happened just days after the police shootings in Lakewood; and last year, when the performance happened on the day of the Sandy Hook school massacre at Newtown, Conn. This year, the TSO “Messiah” will be overshadowed by the memory of last year’s tenor soloist Gregory Carroll, who died this summer at age 35 of an heart attack.

“It’s always in my mind,” Boers says. “The dark/light/resurrection themes really resonate for me.”

But that’s the beauty of Handel’s music, which was not written to be staged.

“The way Handel shows the text is not very pictorial on purpose,” Boers says. “It allows people to fill in the blanks, like a radio show – as opposed to Bach, who’s more like a TV producer. So (the music) doesn’t go out of fashion. Handel’s piece has endured – it just takes on a new meaning for every generation.”

Messiah 2013

Who: Tacoma Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform Handel’s “Messiah” with soprano Maria Mannisto, mezzo-soprano Melissa Schiel, tenor Eric Neuville, and baritone Peter Tuff

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: St. Charles Borromeo Church, 7112 S. 12th St., Tacoma

Tickets: $25

Information: 253-272-7264,

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti

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