This year, our local ballet company, which is about to become an ambassador for our cultural scene when it heads to Budapest, Hungary, in late April as invited guests for a ballet festival, is presenting its ballet to the music of Handel’s Messiah for the Easter season, the season for which it was composed. For the opening night performance in Memorial Auditorium on March 28, principal ballerina Melissa Podcasy was replaced by Cherilyn Lee and Margaret Severin-Hansen.

Performances of this work have become so frequent that this reviewer tends to avoid them, especially when they are inappropriately presented during the Christmas season. I would gladly return for a repeat of this one, however. Artistic Director and Choreographer Robert Weiss and his collaborators have breathed new life into it.

The 53 numbers are divided into the standard three parts, with an “Intermission” at the end of Part I, to which location (between Nos. 21 and 22) No. 44, the “Hallelujah” chorus, has been moved, and a brief “Pause” at the end of Part II (after No. 43). This dislocation seems strange and inappropriate, musically, but presumably is necessary for scenery and costume reasons. Sets, which are simply scrims with backlighting, three suspended circular “leaded-glass frames” suggesting rose windows in a cathedral (in Part I), and a pair of drapes lowered and raised to suggest a window for occasional tableaux vivants, and props, which are minimal, are abstract for Parts I and III. They are very realistic in Part II, for which the backdrop was more heavily painted in several colors and darker in a sort of Post-Impressionist brushstroke style. This latter would not suit the “Hallelujah” chorus, and it was seemingly decided that it makes for a better closing number than an opening one, which it would become if the Pause were displaced rather than the number.

Costumes follow the same pattern, with those for the abstract sections being simple and often dependent on the lighting for their color, while those for Part II are more realistic, varying according to the text. For example, those for the Crucifixion scene are clearly inspired by Roman garb and those for No. 40, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?,” are modern military in style. Props for this number include tattered flags from various nations and several types of weapons. Costumes for No. 26, “All we like sheep…,” include sheep-face headdresses, visible when the dancers bow their heads, and sheep tails, visible when they turn around. A few members of the audience found this a bit comedic, alas. Water is simulated by bands of white cloth being waved just above the floor and over which Jesus steps, while a dark cloud enveloping the world is a large black cloth under which the dancers gather.

This minimalism of the sets, props, and costumes for the majority of the ballet allows the listener and viewer to focus on both the text and the relation of the dancers’ movements to it. After the opening three numbers, the four soloists and the 27-member Raleigh Oratorio Society Chamber Choir were in the pit with the 25-piece orchestra, composed primarily of NCS players. Sound blended very well with this arrangement; the size of the musical forces was right and the performance was fine. The soloists-soprano Carla Lefevre, alto Mary Gayle Greene, tenor John Daniecki, and baritone Anthony Deaton-acquitted themselves well on the whole, except that Daniecki had an excessive wobble in his opening number, No. 2. A couple of Greene’s numbers were particularly striking.

The dancers’ movements seem to flow from and with the text and music extremely well. For example, those accompanying No. 21, “His yoke is easy and His burthen is light,” suggest preparations for flight into the air. In addition to those of the tableaux vivants that imitate paintings (mainly from the NCMA collection) that were reproduced in black and white in the program, many of the poses are inspired by traditional iconography from Christian works of art. While some numbers are spectacular showpieces, and were well executed, they seemed natural outgrowths of the text and music; the show was not a distraction from the religious nature of the work. Mikhail Nikitine danced the role of Jesus, and hence had the greatest number of these showpieces, some of which included major leaps, and he was raised up into the lofts on a cable at the conclusion. The pas de deux accompanying the “Pastoral Symphony” was exquisite. The dance for the “Hallelujah” chorus was appropriately exuberant and that of No. 53, “Worthy is the lamb…,” appropriately celebratory.

The conceit of imagining a congregation gathering in a London church to hear the story of the Messiah and intermingling the congregants with the enactors, while apparently necessary in order to choreograph portions of the text that are more reactive to the events than narrative of them, adds confusion for my eyes because it is not always evident who are participants and who are viewers. Perhaps some refinements in the costuming can be thought up to make this clearer. Brief descriptions accompanied the text printed in the program, but the house lights were completely down, so following it was impossible. The program also contained artist bios for all the dancers, ballet creative personnel, soloists, and conductor Al Sturgis, and lists of all musical personnel.

Even if the Christ in tights seems anachronistic and sacrilegious to you, and you can’t imagine in your wildest dreams someone desecrating this classic in this way, hie yourself to the BTI Center to see and hear this version. If you can’t make it this year, it’ll be repeated April 3-20, 2003. The music, for all of its being overplayed, is still inspiring; the ballet is likewise inspired.