Visually dramatic Messiah

2008-03-18 00:00

MENTION Handel’s Messiah, and people think of a big stage, orchestra and chorus, four soloists getting up for their moments in the spotlight, and a conductor in front. It’s traditional, it’s static and it is what oratorios seem to be about.

But Durban’s Themi Venturas has other ideas and they will come to the stage on Easter Sunday in the Playhouse when Handel’s great work will be seen in a dramatic presentation on the stage of the Opera, using projection screens, a set to represent a landscape, and the various lifts and levels that the Opera can provide. The KZN Philharmonic and the chorus of 120 voices will be placed in four groups, and the soloists will not be in their usual places but heard from different parts of the stage.

On Thursday, as part of the current concert series in the Durban City Hall, the KZNPO will perform Messiah in a more usual format in the Durban City Hall, but Venturas has been brought in to create something different for Easter Day. Talking to William Charlton-Perkins, Venturas explained that as the work was never intended to be presented as a dramatic piece on an opera stage, he has kept his approach “simple and bold, closely following Handel’s remarkably graphic and dramatic musical responses to the work’s New Testament text”.

Venturas is going to let the work speak for itself rather than bring any kind of “relevant” interpretation to it, but he is obviously aiming for a visually as well as aurally exciting experience. One influence he cites was seeing Handel’s operatic satire, Xerxes, staged in Santa Fe. He also has plenty of experience in the field of opera, including directing the all-South African production, Princess Magogo, for its world premiere in the Playhouse some years ago. He has directed productions of Faust, Carmen and The Magic Flute, and co-directed La Traviata with fellow Durban theatre personality Steven Stead for a Gauteng production.

Again talking to Charlton-Perkins, Venturas admitted that he was a late-comer to opera and oratorio. But what he once found an art form that made him uncomfortable, he now sees as “the highest on the planet”. And Messiah, with its wonderful music, is offering him a chance to combine his love for the form with his visual theatrical background.

Soloists for both Thursday and Sunday’s performances are Beverley Chiat, Veramarie Meyer, Bongani Tembe and Federico Freschi, with choruses trained by Juan Burgers and Rosalie Conrad, and the KZNPO under the baton of Welsh conductor, Owain Arwel Hughes, who is principal associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Director of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales.

Sunday’s performance is at 3 pm, and booking is at Computicket at 083 915 8000 or the Playhouse box office at 031 369 9540. But, not surprisingly, tickets have been selling like hot cakes, so it may not be possible to see Venturas’s theatrical magic combine with Handel’s genius this time round.

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