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‘Messiah’: Song, Scandal, and the Paradox of Easter

Author: Damaris Media

Picture: Jack Offord

‘Messiah’: Song, Scandal, and the Paradox of Easter

Damaris Media explain the story behind a new production of Handel's "Messiah".

Handel’s ‘Messiah’ is one of the most iconic pieces of religious music ever written.

Most of us will have seen it performed-maybe in a local church as part of Christmas celebrations - and all of us recognise that spine-tingling Hallelujah chorus.

What you may not know is that ‘Messiah’, now considered a cosy and perhaps conservative tradition, was the stuff of scandal when it debuted.

Many people thought it was blasphemous, objecting to ‘sacred’ music being sung in ‘secular’ theatres. Handel caused a stir by insisting that the Contralto role be sung by Susannah Cibber, who was not a classical vocalist but a popular singer, celebrated actress, and divorcee.

‘Messiah’ - written to be performed at Easter, not Christmas - was groundbreaking for its time. Now a new production, in cinemas for one night only on March 28th, is recapturing that spirit.

Uniquely Human

‘This piece of music is very familiar to lots of people – but it might be difficult to understand the human story,’ says producer Alison Hargreaves, who helped first bring this version of ‘Messiah’ to the stage at Bristol Old Vic theatre.

The semi-dramatised production was first performed as part of the Bristol Proms, a festival aiming to bring classical music to a wider audience.

The onstage drama is drawn out of Handel’s subject matter: the joys and struggles of believing the Easter story, and Christianity generally.

‘I think there can be an assumption that if you believe in something your natural state of mind is peace and certainty,’ says Tom Morris, the award-winning director behind the production.

‘But I think there are lots of people whose experience of belief is one of struggle.’

‘Messiah’ has already had rave reviews from critics, and moved theatre audiences to tears.

‘What we heard again and again was that the production had enabled people to make sense of the story and music in a way they hadn’t before,’ reflects Hargreaves.

Christian audiences, she says, will find a uniquely human retelling of the events at the centre of our faith.

Powerful and Strange

The figure of Jesus, strikingly played by actor and disability activist Jamie Beddard, is the focus of the action.

As the words ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ (taken from the book of Job) are sung over his immobile body, we gain a new understanding of how powerful and strange the Easter story is.

As Christians, we worship an immortal God who died and an all-powerful God who was helpless.

Jesus rose, but we still experience darkness and death; he was killed, but won the victory.

It does not get much more paradoxical than that.

  • Messiah is in cinemas for one night only on March 28th. Book tickets at cinemalive.com.
  • This article comes from Damaris Media, who create free film resources for community groups. Read more at damarismedia.com and keep up to date on their latest resources by subscribing to their e-newsletter.

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