March 15, 2011By Heidi EllisonMusic
messiah, theatre du chatelet, paris

Bass Darren Jeffery surrounded by just a few of the many elements that went into a visually chaotic Paris production of Handel’s Messiah.

I couldn’t contain my curiosity when I heard that Oleg Kulik, one of the most outrageously provocative artists to emerge from post-Soviet Russia, would be the director, “visual designer” and costume designer for a production of Handel’s Messiah (in Mozart’s 1789 orchestration, sung in German) at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

Kulik made his name with performances in which he gets naked, gets down on all fours with a collar around his neck and chains himself to a wall in a public place, barking and lunging at passersby. In one case he actually bit an art-exhibition-goer, and he once defecated in public in his doggy role.

So what on earth would this iconoclast do with Handel’s Messiah? I had to go see.

My heart sank when the performance began not with music but with a long, sermon-like commentary on the Messiah’s texts read in sonorous tones by French Academician Michel Serres, who was dressed like a priest in black robes. He made four appearances during the performance, adding a good 30-40 minutes to its already lengthy length (three hours and 15 minutes), but at least providing a little welcome snooze time. Apparently this was not the fault of Kulik but the idea of dramaturge Benoît Chantre.

When the music finally started, the first surprise was the appearance onstage of two men dressed up like Orthodox priests, complete with long beards and tall hats, each accompanied by a woman in robes and veils. They turned out to be the soloists, who would occasionally leave their thrones (for the men; the women had to sit at their feet) at the side of the stage to sing.

Meanwhile, all kinds of high-tech lighting effects, videos, props and a live dancer were turning the stage into a visual mashup. Some of the effects were truly cool, among them a rippling virtual stage curtain, flames engulfing the stage or sprouting from the heads of the singers, and projected surtitles integrated into the decor. If Kulik had been content to use such effects, his production might have enhanced the music, rather than distracting and detracting from it with an incoherent hodgepodge of imagery that included swimming jellyfish, photos of dead children and a dancing skeleton, to mention just a few.

The live dancer, whose relevance was unclear and who was almost always weaving around onstage – wearing a tall headdress and sometimes dressed as a woman and sometimes as a man – seemed to be doing a bad parody of modern dance. The props were more than ridiculous: huge robots and pieces of machinery with flashing digital readouts zipping around the stage for no apparent reason.

What has all this got to do with Handel’s music? Not much that I could see, although the production was rife with miscellaneous religious imagery – projections of stained glass windows, for example, and the singers dressed as priests.

Musically, the production was a success, but it was oh-so-hard to pay attention to it with all that going on. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Hartmut Haenchen; soprano Christina Landshamer; tenor Tilman Lichdi; and the Châtelet chorus all offered standout performances, while mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany and bass Darren Jeffery did a fine job. This is one production for which I would actually recommend buying a cheap sans-visibilité ticket so you could just enjoy the music.

Many people left during the two entr’actes, and by the end, my curiosity focused on what the audience’s reaction would be. The orchestra and singers were warmly received, but when Kulik took to the stage, the loud booing overwhelmed one or two lonely bravos. Then, in his most theatrically successful move of the evening, he grinned and directed some very rude, sexually suggestive gestures at the audience. Finally, the Kulik we love!

Heidi Ellison

Théâtre du Châtelet: Place du Châtelet, 75001 Paris. Métro: Châtelet. Tel.: 01 40 28 28 40. Remaining performances: March 16, 17, 19 at 8pm, March 20 at 3pm. Tickets: €10-€106.

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