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Staging adds a different drama to the 'Messiah'

George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" transcends the concert stage. Although initially intended for Easter performance, it's become a musical rite of Christmas.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's revival of it this season, after a one-year hiatus, will be different from all of its previous performances. The oratorio will be presented as a staged baroque opera set in three periods of American history.

"It's great to tell the story from the American perspective," symphony music director Manfred Honeck says. "I know we've gotten a lot of interest about it from outside of Pittsburgh. We all know this piece so well, it's good to have more aspects to reflect on."

Honeck will conduct four vocal soloists, the Mendelssohn Choir and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in three performances of Handel's "Messiah" Friday through Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

The front of the stage will be lowered to create an orchestra pit. Sam Helfrich is the stage director. Costumes are by Nancy Leary, sets by Laura Jellinek and lighting by Eric Southern.

The conductor will be leading his first full "Messiah," although he's performed it as a string player and conducted some excerpts.

"When I played it, I always had the feeling that I longed for something else to give a message and a link to our time," he says.

When symphony management asked him to conduct it, he requested some time to think about how to present it.

Honeck likes to find different ways to present familiar music. His has scored big successes here and elsewhere with a special version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem. He performed it again this fall in Copenhagen at a televised concert.

" 'Messiah' was always very hard to follow for me. It's very hard to hold concentration for the whole three hours -- apart from the fantastic music," he says. "I love what Handel did, but I'm interested in giving more message to people when I conduct this piece written more than 300 years ago. Then I had the idea to make a semi-staged version."

Honeck spoke with Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn about his idea and asked for recommendations for a director. Among those Hahn mentioned was Helfrich, who directed compelling productions of "The Turn of The Screw" in 2005 and "Eugene Onegin" in 2009 for Pittsburgh Opera.

Helfrich says he found Honeck's idea fascinating. The director says his creative process began with considering the character of each of the three parts of "Messiah." The nonlinear narrative he created begins in the 1950s, which he notes is viewed so nostalgically today. The action will move to present day America for the more troubled second part, which includes the choruses "All we like sheep have gone astray" and "Why do the nations so furiously rage together" before ending with the glory of the Hallelujah Chorus.

The final part, which opens with the aria "I know that my Redeemer liveth," is set a century ago as immigrants to this country sought a new life.

"In the end, it has turned out to be more than I expected and wanted to do," Honeck says, "but I am completely behind that. It's better because it gives more freedom to the director to express his thoughts and feelings about the music, and also to tell the story more clearly."

Honeck is prepared for the production to be controversial.

"I'm sure there will be some people who think the music is strong enough," he says. "I'm also sure this provocative way will be exciting for people who will experience this famous piece in a different way. We should be open to that. I have to take the risk. Life is easier without it, but excitement without risk is not possible."

Additional Information:

'Messiah'

Presented by: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with Manfred Honeck, conductor, and the Mendelssohn Choir

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission : $20-$93

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown

Details: 412-392-4900 or website

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