Several years before last December's controversial staging of "Messiah" by the Pittsburgh Symphony, an equally striking production took place in Shadyside. The Bach Choir of Pittsburgh performed Handel's famed oratorio not in a church but in the Hunt Armory. Soloists sung atop military vehicles and the chorus members surrounded the audience placed in the middle of the huge enclosed space.
It was not an event that audience members likely would forget, and this December the choir is revisiting it.
"The environment of the tanks and trucks gives another view of war and of 'Messiah,' with its movements such as 'Why do the nations so furiously rage?' " says Thomas Douglas, the choir's artistic director. "I don't want to distract from it by having a circus -- I think that the piece speaks very strongly. I was just looking for an environment that would couch Messiah, that would allow people to make their own opinion." He calls it "Messiah in Space," not in terms of outer space, but because of the armory.
"Messiah," which premiered in 1742 in Dublin, is an oratorio, an artform with singers and soloists but with no sets or staging. But its close relationship to the opera in England of the time -- in fact, Handel wrote it because there was a ban on opera performances during Lent -- means that it is not a stretch to make an oratorio into a pseudo opera.
But "Messiah" is a peculiar case since it has little new text. Most of the music sets biblical verse or passages from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It is as stationary a work as any in the repertory.
"Having soloists memorize their parts and move around helps the audience understand the piece that is a little static," says Mr. Douglas. "I got many emails about how this meant something to me and I would say, I didn't mean that, but it's great."
He said that he will change little from the original staging, adding a few recitatives. The biggest difference will be out of his control: "It depends on where the vehicles will be parked," he said.
But the ultimate goal is to provoke the audience to a "deeper consideration" of the themes and the text than you might get in a church or a sing-a-long. And, of course, to envelop patrons in the rich music of this masterstroke of choral music.music