Was the premiere of Messiah a flop?
The answer to the above question is simple. A record number of 700 people attended the premiere performance of Messiah on April 13, 1742, in Dublin. The crowd wanted to see Handel, whose fame was already at the superstar level, and Susanna Cibber, the contralto soloist, who was involved in a scandalous divorce. Besides all that, the Dublin performance was not a flop at all, but a huge success. And the proceeds were divided among three charities: Mercer’s Hospital, the Charitable Infirmary, and prisoners’ debt relief. Historical references to a “less than successful premiere” pertain to the London performance a year later. But that was not “a flop” either.
Not much is known about Handel’s sudden acceptance of an invitation to perform in Ireland, but it was probably offered by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire, which gave Handel an opportunity to escape the pressure of his less than successful opera endeavors in London and to consider a future of English Oratorio.
Dublin had an active theatre and concert life and Handel’s visit coincided with the opening of a new concert venue, the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, where Handel gave two performances each of L’Allegro, Acis and Galatea and Esther between December 1741 and February 1742. He was persuaded to stay longer than planned and produced another concert series which included Alexander’s Feast and Hymen, an unstaged serenata adapted from Imeneo. This was Handel’s last performance of an Italian opera, by the way.
The second series of concerts finished on April 7, 1742, but Handel was eager to build on his success, so he arranged the first performance of Messiah for April 13. Expectation was high: the rehearsal on April 12 was ticketed and the following morning excited newspapers reported that the oratorio ‘far surpasses anything of that Nature, which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom’. Handel estimated that the venue could hold 600, but an extra 100 people crammed in, and it was a triumph with glowing critical acclaim. But that initial success did not carry over to the early London performances. The London premiere was held at the Covent Garden Theatre, now the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, on March 23, 1743, during the reign of George II. The theatrical location for the performance of a religious work was one of the criticisms by the press. It was in London where the tradition started of standing during the Hallelujah Chorus.
After the initial lackluster reviews of the London premiere, Handel canceled some of the performances that were already scheduled. In 1750, the oratorio was presented in the chapel of London’s Foundling Hospital as a charity performance. That became an annual event from then on and continued after Handel’s death.