George Frideric Handel / Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Der Messias
Mozartwoche Salzburg, 2020
Marc Minkowski, Robert Wilson, Elena Tsallagova, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Richard Croft, José Coca Loza
Unitel Classica - Blu-ray
Putting aside the sheer beauty of the aesthetic of a visual artist who paints with light and shapes, the success of Robert Wilson's unique style and direction, I find, is down to his ability to touch on the spiritual nature of music in his abstract designs without needing to slavishly serve the conventional narrative form of the drama. Evidently that works well in works that stretch the opera form like Pelléas et Mélisande or Arvo Pärt's Adam's Passion, but even in a work with no apparent ambitions towards spirituality as Einstein on the Beach or in a work as conventionally opera-dramatic as Il Trovatore he sometimes manages it as well - perhaps finding something spiritual in the less familiar French language version in the case of the latter.
There are similar gaps to explore between traditional expectations and boundaries in this less familiar German version of Handel's Messiah. The original work itself of course has a beautiful spiritual dimension, and if the purpose or intent of the oratorio is to embody the essence of godliness, Wilson is well equipped to do that. Intriguingly however the work was arranged with new instruments and in the German language by Mozart, another great composer who also had a deep feeling for the spiritual side of humanity, who would himself contribute a considerable body of his work to religious music, masses and of course in his famous requiem. There's an intriguing crossover there, an exploration and reworking of one great composer's work by another to his own idiom and that presents a fascinating musical world for a conductor to explore, and for a director like Robert Wilson to present.
Quite how you would begin to describe Wilson's approach to Der Messias, much less evaluate it, doesn't seem at all worthwhile. In a light-boxed and light-framed stage he captures transitions in mood, sentiment and meaning in a shifting of light, in the change of a colour tone, a blast of bright godly light or fading light like the setting of the sun, from glory to quiet contemplation. The projections of nature and floating natural objects add another element not always used in the artificial reality and geometric shapes of Wilson productions. A log, a stick, a tree with roots, waves gently rolling, huge shifting and crashing icebergs. And within this figures are precisely posed, Richard Croft dressed up like a Bob Hope music hall entertainer, winking and nodding to the audience, Elena Tsallagova a more angelic presence (and voice), with dancers and other enigmatic figures making appearances.
You might have a problem with this abstraction, but only if you try to apply or impose meaning or interpretation upon it. It can distract from following the expression of Charles Jennens's libretto (although that has a complicating factor in it being sung in German, so is not as 'direct' as you might be familiar with). Not that Jennens's words are transparent or direct in any case, but if they take on renewed meaning here it's because of Mozart's beautiful version of the score, a wonderful blend of Handel's composition and Mozart's musical and instrumental rearrangement. Not that you can find Wilson's contribution indifferent. As is often the case, even if it sounds like a cop out, is that you have to do is let Wilson transport you into his vision and feeling for the piece. It will work for some, not so much for others, but it is beautiful hypnotic and involving in its own way.
Inevitably, there is always a sense of coldness and formality about a Robert Wilson production, which when aligned with the archaic expression of Jennens makes the message of the Messiah feel as if it were something encased in ice. That may sound unkind, but there is something to that view of religious formality and purity that doesn't permit any flaws or imperfections. Wilson embraces this, finds the beauty within it and seeks to almost glorify it and in his own way break through the ice to the message of warmth, of peace and of hope for humanity. Which was perhaps also Mozart's intention in taking the outdated musical style of oratorio and bringing his own human touch to the greatness that lies within Handel's icy perfection.
Whether he succeeds and whether you ascribe to the Wilson view of opera and theatre direction or not is a matter for the individual viewer, but it's unquestionably original. If you go with that (ice) flow however, there's every possibility that you can look at Handel's Messiah in an entirely new way. The contribution of Mozart's Classical Viennese reworking of Handel can't be discounted for the power and majesty of the music alone, and unsurprisingly Handel sounds natural in German. In terms of interpretation it is quite wonderful under Marc Minkowski and his Les Musiciens du Louvre. Elena Tsallagova, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Richard Croft and José Coca Loza all likewise go a considerable way to ensure that even though almost entirely devoid of any religious connotation, the majesty of the work and its uplifting message for humanity comes through clearly.
Any Robert Wilson production in High Definition is always a treat and the image on this Blu-ray release from Unitel Classica of the 2020 Mozart Week Salzburg performance captures the muted blue/grey colour tones and the gradations of light and shadow beautifully. The 48kHz/24 bit High Resolution LPCM and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio tracks are no less impressive a soundstage for the wonderful musical performances and outstanding soloist and choral singing. Other than trailers, there are no extra features on the disc, just some background information in the enclosed booklet on how Mozart's version came into being and some consideration of the ideas employed by Wilson. The region-free Blu-ray has subtitles in German, English, French, Korean and Japanese.
Links: Mozartwoche Salzburg