The man of sorrows in the grey flannel suit? This time, it might be a subtle Prince-de-Galles plaid, but either way, the grief he suffers is not quite what we read of in the gospels. His wife cheats on him, very possibly with his brother, or is the other man his best friend? His board of directors shreds and tosses his white paper. No wonder this latter-day bearer of the world's crosses slashes his wrists in a hotel room.
As everyone knows, Handel's Messiah consists of a patchwork of Biblical prophecies, reflections and exclamations. In 2009, the adventurous Theater an der Wien commemorated the 250th anniversary of the death of the composer with a dramatization of the oratorio by Claus Guth, the fashionable German director responsible for the Salzburg Festival's current Mozart–da Ponte productions. With Mozart, Guth seems to be peeking into a palace through a keyhole, making much too much of the next to nothing he happens to see. Here, he pieces together a narrative peopled with stereotypes, and therein lies its power.
As in an opera, each soloist of the ensemble has a person to play. Paul Lorenger — barefoot, attaché case in hand — dances the ghost of the suicide in his business suit, emoting, collapsing, sometimes bouncing off the walls. In another silent role, Nadia Kichler, her face scrubbed and eager, communicates vibrantly in sign language, whether one guesses her meanings or not.
As for the singers, both sopranos — Cornelia Horak as the suicide's straying wife, Susan Gritton as the wife of the first woman's lover — are superb musicians, cool and fresh, somewhat instrumental in timbre yet intimate in expression. The men are even better. Bejun Mehta, supreme among countertenors, sings the immaculately turned out, conscience-stricken adulterer, his tone like molten gold, his sensuous features mirroring a world of turmoil. As another friend or brother of the suicide, Florian Boesch portrays a tempestuous nonconformist, his mighty bass by turns silken and snarling yet never seeming to shift gears. Richard Croft, unflatteringly done up as a perhaps pharisaical preacher, sings the tenor part in light, lambent phrases. Boy soprano Martin Pöllmann delivers a single recitative like a schoolchild's party piece. The singers of the virtuoso Arnold Schoenberg Chor play individuals, not a mass; their faces are beautiful to watch.
The action begins with the suicide's funeral, putting a counterintuitive yet strangely cogent spin on the radiant comfort of the tenor's opening solo. Roughly halfway through the first of the oratorio's three sections, a long flashback begins. By Part III, we have caught up. The funeral is over, and the mourners are left to pick up the pieces. The revolving set is a constantly mutating labyrinth of high-ceilinged corridors giving onto anonymous assembly spaces, hotel rooms, the master suite of a private home. For the most part, Guth proves himself an inventive if earnest storyteller, but occasionally the King James Bible dishes up unintended farce. Gently aglow in a hotel room after her illicit tryst, Horak regales Mehta, who is nearly dressed, with Romans 10:15. "How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace," she sings, all the while caressing — what else? — his feet. She won't let the man put on his socks.
Under their founder Jean-Christophe Spinosi, the instrumentalists of the eclectic Ensemble Matheus attack the overture with grim solemnity. Thereafter, their contribution to the palette and the drama is kaleidoscopic and constant.
Susan Gritton, Cornelia Horak; Bejun Mehta, Richard Croft, Florian Boesch; Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Ensemble Matheus, Jean-Christophe Spinosi. Production: Claus Guth. C Major 703104 (Blu-ray) or 703008 (DVD), 154 mins., subtitled.