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Benjamin Britten
25 Mar 2009

Venice's Variable “War Requiem”

I had been looking forward to it for weeks — really, for years.

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem

Kristin Lewis, soprano; Marlin Miller, tenor; Stephan Genz, baritone. Bruno Bartoletti, conductor. Orchestra e Coro del Teatro La Fenice. Piccoli Cantori Veneziani.


At last I had a chance to hear Benjamin Britten’s monumental War Requiem live, and experience up close and personal not only the splashy dramatic fire, but also the immediacy and subtlety of the chamber aspects of this infrequently performed masterpiece. And. . .to hear it all under acclaimed maestro Bruno Bartoletti leading the reliably excellent orchestra and chorus of Venice’s renowned Teatro La Fenice.

And really, so far so good. No. . .make that “great.” The amassed forces were impeccably prepared. Starting with the flawless chorus, this was music-making of highest order, characterized by clean diction, awesome ensemble, crackling dramatic outbursts, and heart-breaking melancholy as required. Director Claudio Marino Moretti wrung every bit of drama out of his choristers, and did it without sacrificing accuracy of line or smoothness of blend. First among equals, the alto section particularly sported the richest tone I believe I have ever heard in a choral group.

The Piccoli Cantori Veneziani youth chorus under Diana D’Alessio was also highly affecting with its spot-on, other-worldly, off-stage interjections.

The orchestra, too, had a memorable night. The virtuosic challenges of the colossal score held absolutely no terror for them. Signor Bartoletti shepherded the huge core group of musicians placed on the stage, while Marco Paladin ably led the chamber orchestra in the pit. The thoroughness of the musical preparation was on display at the score’s every page turn with the complementary maestri tag-teaming seamlessly and weaving their disparate bands into a satisfying unified whole.

The stage was outfitted with a big handsome wooden box complete with Le Fenice logo, which only enhanced the lively acoustics. The lower voices did not always have quite the same snarl as the upper voices, but they always had finesse and fullness. Indeed, the complete palette of instrumental solo work had personality, the tutti segments had passion, and the group numbers drawn from the standard Requiem Mass that provide the work’s solid framework, were cause for rejoicing.

However, the heart of the piece belongs to the soloists, especially the two men who present Britten’s pacifist philosophy in the form of musicalized (glorious) poems by Wilfrid Owen.

Soprano Kristin Lewis was quite a “discovery” to me. Her ample, slightly steely dramatic voice seemed a little large at first for the work required. This all-out approach resulted in a couple of unwieldy phrases in the angularity of the “Lachrymosa,” for example. But later, when fire power was truly called for, Ms. Lewis hurled thrilling, pointed, full-throated tone at us, ringing out over the orchestra and chorus in full Geschrei. Just recalling the effect gives me chills all over again. Thrilling. Extra-musical-observation: our soprano was decked out in a socko black and silver sequined gown that dazzled without upstaging.

Tenor Marlin Miller seems to have the goods for the demands of this work. His rather full, lyric tenor is well schooled, his musicianship is quite fine, and his enunciation of the all-important text was clear as a bell. So why was his presentation so unpersuasive? He seemed to be singing “correctly,” cautiously, as if indisposed (although no announcement was made). I would like to think this good singer is perhaps capable of a more committed, more abandoned performance than was on display this evening.

And what to say about the soft-grained gifts of baritone Stephan Genz? I had quite enjoyed his gentle performance in Die tote Stadt at this very theatre some weeks prior. But truth to tell, Mr. Genz had neither the heft of tone, the gravitas, nor the diction to serve the War Requiem. “Bugles Sang,” his first utterance, came out “Boo-Ghells-Seng.” And it repeated. “Booooo-ghells.” “Seng.” And repeated again. It was all “down hill” from there. Or more correctly, “duh-ooon. . heel. . .”

Would any singer who is a native English speaker be tolerated singing Italian or French or German phonetically with a fiercely incorrect accent? (That was rhetorical: No.) We needed an idiomatic vocalist with the burnished tone and communicative gifts of Simon Keenlyside or Nathan Gunn or Gerald Finley. What we got was a Guglielmo in need of Berlitz. For a foreign audience perhaps that was enough. (To his credit, Stephan was intelligent, well-prepared, and worked mighty hard to put his solos across, but he was sadly over-parted.)

For me, the excellence of the chorus and orchestra, beautifully shaped under a seasoned Maestro, almost, but not quite, compensated for the missing poetry of the chamber songs. The thrilling live War Requiem reading I sought seems to still be in my future.

James Sohre

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