A short comic fantasy on a Handel theme

The work, featuring the torments and fantasies of a tenor about to sing "The Messiah," is having its world premiere in Seattle. There's another performance today (March 17) at 2 pm at the Frye.

The work, featuring the torments and fantasies of a tenor about to sing "The Messiah," is having its world premiere in Seattle. There's another performance today (March 17) at 2 pm at the Frye.

The American Handel Festival, now in full swing here in Seattle, includes a newly commissioned short comic opera, "The Man in the Mirror," by Ben Bernstein which had its first performance — a world premiere — in First Hill's Trinity Parish Church yesterday (March 16) at lunch time.

What we see is a professional tenor gradually dressing for a "Messiah" performance in front of a mirror, from his boxers up to his white tie and tail coat. At the same time he does various physical and vocal exercises to get his voice in shape. He warms up by trying out various parts of his "Messiah" solos, especially the opening recitative “Comfort Ye” and the following aria (“Every Valley Shall be Exalted”...). He dreams of other tenor lives — as a heart-throb Rodolfo in Puccini’s “Boheme,” and as the enamoured young prince in "Kismet."

What we hear are fragments of the "Messiah" and the various other composers in the tenor’s dream world. More unexpectedly we hear disembodied voices singing and talking back at him through the mirror. Sometimes seductive (“You look good”), sometimes nagging about household chores undone, and sometimes critical and derisive (“You should have been a dentist”), they suggest the professional anxieties and worldly worries besetting an artist in the privacy of his dressing room before facing the public — not to mention a long struggle with a recalcitrant bow tie familiar to anyone who scorns the ready-tied article.

Handel’s "Messiah" is his iconic work, done all over the world: often, as in Seattle, it is a Christmas tradition. As a boy growing up in provincial England I was often taken to semi-amateur performances. I still have vivid and uncomfortable recollections of church performances accompanied on the organ (the curiously angular fugue in the Allegro section of the overture is by no means easy to bring off on that instrument), and of the strangled noise produced by gallant but struggling tenors in the opening recitative. These early experiences have worked as what psychologists call aversion therapy, so I have tended to avoid the work since then, and I was intrigued at the prospect of a comic prelude to it.

Ben Bernstein’s comic musical fantasy is original and entertaining. At around half an hour, one might call it a diversion rather than an opera. But divert it certainly does. In the tenor part, Ross Hauck showed a natural comic flair. He also sang very well. There’s nothing strangled or struggling in his vocal production, and he gave a beguilingly sweet-toned performance of the "Kismet" song, “Hold my hand, there’s a stranger in Paradise.” He finished, fully dressed, with a fine performance of the first stanza of the “Every Valley” aria, which made me want to hear the whole of Handel’s great oratorio. He was ably accompanied on cello and harpsichord by David Morris and Phebe Craig.

If you go: “The Man in the Mirror” is to be repeated today (March 17) at 2 pm at the Frye Art Museum ($15) and at 9.30 on Friday evening at the Sorrento Hotel (a wine and dessert affair costing $50 per person). It’s well worth a visit.

The Festival got off to an excellent start last weekend when the Seattle Symphony, directed by the baroque specialist Nicholas McGegan, gave vividly alive and spontaneous performances of music by Handel and his contemporaries. The Festival continues this week with concerts on Friday at Our Lady of Fatima; an open-to–all-players community performance of the Water Music and Fireworks suites on Saturday afternoon at St. James Cathedral; and also at St. James on Saturday and Sunday evenings some of Handel’s vigorous choral anthems will also be given. On Sunday afternoon there is what promises to be a highly interesting performance of Bach’s "St. John Passion." And there is another full program next week. Full information and tickets on the Festival website.


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