Handel age 7 and his mom lug a clavichord to the attic so Handel can play undetected by his father, who wants him to become a lawyer. Mom encourages her son-prodigy to keep playing until God shows him what path to take, and to see LOVE as the “highest law”.
Handel’s (age 30) fame and prestige grow event by event, until at the pinnacle the King unveils Handel’s statue, the Queen declaring, “Handel has conquered England with a harp and a velvet hand.”
Handel’s (age 54) fame and fortune have declined dramatically. His best friend and accountant John advises him to retire from opera. Handel plays to near empty venues.
We see the cause of Handel’s decline: the rising popularity of burlesque; specifically, The Beggar’s Opera, a parody of all things royal and elite. Suzannah Cibber is the lead actress of the day.
Charles Jennens presents Handel with the Messiah libretto and his reasons for writing it (It is “a trumpet of faith”). Handel warmly accepts the gift, but promptly forgets about it in his futile pursuit of past glory.
Suzannah’s husband Theo owes money to William Sloper, and subtly sets up Sloper with his wife in the hopes of a tryst so he can sue William. Meanwhile Handel is a pawn in court politics-- he personally has the favor of the King and Queen, but has offended the Bishop of London by using choirs to perform outside of church. Prince Frederick coldly relates the British affliction of Ireland.
In Ireland we meet Sean & Bryn (a deeply-in-love, young married couple) collapsed in the steaming ruin of their home, ransacked by British mercenaries. Sean wants to fight back, but Bryn pleads “a child needs it’s father”; announcing they are expecting their first child!
John informs Handel of his second bankruptcy. Serriano, Handel’s star tenor, criticizes Handel for not throwing bigger parties to bolster opera attendance. Handel posts handbills for his new opera, but they’re torn down by Suzannah’s father (Handel’s chief rival). Priests Delany and Wexham discuss the meaning of faith outside a church where Handel meets with the Bishop of London, who bans Handel outright from using the Bishop’s choirs outside a church.
The stress of Handel’s declining fortunes begin to crush him physically now. He has a brief partial collapse returning from the Bishop’s and Delany and Wexham help him home. Suzannah’s father secretly meets with Serriano and Handel’s other singers to entice them to join his “Opera of the Nobility” – and they accept. Handel cannot rest at home and decides to work at the Haymarket Theater, where his singers have gathered to announce to Handel their defection to the Opera of the Nobility. Handel begs them to stay, but they spurn him.
Totally alone, Handel realizes he’s lost EVERYTHING – his money, his fame and his friends. He feels utterly worthless. As walks through a back alley, a bolt of pain stabs through his head, he stumbles and falls unconscious from a stroke. John finds Handel and carries him home. In the darkest night of his life he dreams of meeting his mother at the “jumping off point into eternity”. Handel wants to die now that he’s lost everything. His mother invites Handel to start fresh, to create something beautiful and lasting to bring with him to heaven. Suddenly, mysteriously, Handel feels the love of God pour over him in a transfiguration of sorts, and he yearns to see God. His mother reveals there is a path prepared to God (“one way”), but Handel is not yet ready, and must return to his trials. Handel wakes to hear a doctor tell him his right arm is permanently paralyzed and his music days are over.
Suzannah meets with William Sloper at his hotel room, and they find solace from life’s problems in each other’s arms. Unknown to them, a well-paid hotel employee peeps into Sloper’s room and records the tryst, writing in minute detail. His task complete, he delivers this in affidavit form to Theo Cibber in exchange for payment.
John takes Handel to a sulphur bath/religious retreat, where Handel prays for mercy as a completely broken man. After an allegorical baptism in the fiery water, Handel is miraculously cured of his paralysis. He returns home healed physically, but empty emotionally with no purpose or direction. How can things get worse?
The Queen dies– she had been Handel’s biggest supporter. Handel performs at her funeral, where Delany tells Wexham he must return to Ireland. Before Delany leaves, he tells Handel “when all is lost, you may still call on the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.” …an echo of something Jennens said years ago.
Handel ponders his bleak future --he has nothing to live or work for. Though cast down, Handel reflects on the night he felt the profound love of God, and desperately searches within for the love that matters most in life. As he does, John says “When all is lost, you may still call on the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ”- and a light begins to illuminate inside Handel – he remembers Jennens libretto, and feels the fire of purpose flicker within. He seizes the libretto, reads and then and begins to write, commencing with “For Unto Us a Child is Born”. Meanwhile, Bryn in Ireland gives birth to their firstborn.
Handel enters a 24 day creative work-feast with little sleep or food, pushing himself to portray the majesty of the Messiah with his music and Jennens words. Near the end, John finds Handel collapsed over his keyboard from exhaustion and the rapture of the great Hallelujah Chorus. “Me thought I saw the face of God.”
Where should Handel present Messiah to the world? Fleeing England’s disfavor, Handel chooses Ireland…and there is another soul he can save. Handel invites Suzannah Cibber-- shamed by her ‘celebrity infidelity trial of the decade’—to be his solo contralto. On the trip over, Handel recounts his personal rescue from darkness and journey toward the Messiah. Suzannah ponders his words.
Sean is thrown in debtor prison with no hope of release and great desires for revenge. A fellow prisoner begins to heal Sean’s heart with a vivid personal story of mercy and forgiveness.
Can Handel pull it all together in Ireland? He organizes his musical forces and begins rehearsals. Unbeknownst to Handel, passers-by cannot pull themselves away from listening to the unspeakably moving music during the rehearsals. Traffic is impeded, and throngs desperate to hear are dispersed.
Soon comes the day of Messiah’s premier performance, years since Handel has received audience favor. Handel and his performers commence. Movement after movement they continue, Handel too nervous to look at the uncustomarily quiet audience. The Messiah’s triumphant “Amens” seal the performance’s end. All is still. Handel surveys his performers to know the audience’s reaction. They stare at the attenders in awe. Cibbers redemptive smile and tears spilling from her eyes, turns Handel to the audience. All are overwhelmed, unsure what to do. One shouts a celebratory “Aye!” Then then all come on their feet, shouting, whistling and clapping their applause, talking with one another about their resplendent experience. No one is willing to leave; to diminish their exalted feelings.
As we hear the swelling oratorio, we leave the transformed audience and performers, to the thrilled throngs who have listened from the outside. We see the money raised by the performance being distributed to the Debtors Prison Keeper and Sean among the many others climbing up the ladder and out of their dingy prison pit, now wholly redeemed. Some are confused, others weep for joy, hugging one another. At the Charitable Hospital, we watch a renewed-to-his- calling Priest Wexham healing the suffering, sick and weary, who are eager to receive his care.
Handel, perhaps more than any, appears new, awestruck and rejoicing at having brought something with power far beyond his own, to Messiah’s first audience. Reflected in him appears the wonder of how far the transforming goodness of the Messiah will reach through time and among people. Does he see the hundreds of languages and billions of people who have and do revel in the Messiah’s music?
Handel invites Suzannah to stay in Ireland for more performances of Messiah, but she decides to return to London to “take care of things.” Handel gives her a copy of Messiah and reminds her simply, ”He is there for you.” She deeply embraces her friend who has brought her back on her feet.