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Handel’s ‘Messiah’ getting contemporary setting
archived from: 2011-11-07
by: Patricia Bartos

New production set for Dec. 2-4 at Heinz Hall

The Pittsburgh Symphony will present a first-of-its-kind contemporary production of Handel’s “Messiah” at Heinz Hall in Downtown Pittsburgh Friday through Sunday, Dec. 2-4.

Symphony music director Manfred Honeck will join opera and theater director Sam Helfrich in offering the new production, which will feature soloists and members of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh fully costumed and performing on stage, with the orchestra and Honeck in the pit.

Honeck will conduct, with Helfrich as stage director, Laura Jellinek as set designer and Nancy Leary as costume designer.

Singers will include soprano Laura Heimes, mezzo-soprano Lindsay Ammann, tenor Will Ferguson, counter-tenor John Gaston and bass Philip Cutlip, in addition to the Mendelssohn Choir.

Helfrich and Honeck’s interpretation features each of the three acts reflecting an era in American history.

In their production, Act 1 represents the prosperous 1950s, Act 2 depicts life today and Act 3 flashes back to the dreams of early immigrants arriving in a new land.

The goal is for audience members to see themselves as characters on the stage, Helfrich said. Honeck wanted to do something theatrical, said Helfrich, who had earlier done productions for the Pittsburgh Opera and had staged Handel’s works in the past.

Helfrich suggested a contemporary setting.

“We were in contact all along as it evolved,” Helfrich said of the 10 months of preparation.

“We did not set out to make it modern,” he said. “The piece isn’t set in time, rather covering Christ’s birth, death and resurrection.”

The “Messiah” lyrics come from the Old and New Testaments, beginning with prophetic announcements in the first act and concluding with finding redemption and a state of grace.

“To me, it’s about people talking about and celebrating the idea. This one is not about Jesus, Mary and Joseph, it’s about people hearing of the Messiah,” Helfrich said.

“We see a group of people who are very recognizable, people you could see every day.”

 He calls Act 1 the “expectation act,” where “people are on stage in a public space, all getting this news, all in a state of expectation.”

Act 2, he said, is the “rejection act,” focusing on how people turn on Christ, reject him. “We see people at their worst.”

“In this piece we don’t talk of Christ on the cross, it’s just referenced. I was asking who were the people who crucified him? How were they capable of doing it to him?”

He added that Act 3 is about a state of being, of being transformed and the idea of travel. “It’s about the journey from life into the afterlife.”

So Helfrich used a profoundly “iconic” image — of  emigrating from one’s home country. “Immigration plays a great part in this piece, as does the theme of family.

“I want people to come in with an open heart and an open mind,” he said. “Success to me would be if they see a new way of thinking of their lives.

“I want the audience to see people on stage have spiritual transformative experiences and then ask themselves, ‘What is transformative about my life?’” Helfrich, a native of California, directs opera and theater productions around the world, including for the Boston Lyric Opera, the Spoleto Festival/USA and Wolf Trap Opera. He has also taught at Yale University, New York University and the Manhattan School of Music.

Performances of “The Messiah” are Friday and Saturday, Dec. 2-3, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 4, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets start at $20.




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