Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

François-Xavier Roth conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Works by Ligeti, Bartók and Haydn

For the second of my armistice anniversary concerts, I moved across town from the Royal Festival Hall to the Barbican.

The Silver Tassie at the Barbican Hall

‘Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’ The words of George Orwell, expressed in a Tribune article, ‘The Sporting Spirit’, published in 1945.

‘The Eternal Flame’: Works by Debussy, Magnus Lindberg, Stravinsky, and Janáček

If an armistice remembrance concert is to be held - and surely it is not unreasonable to do so, one hundred years on from 1918 - let it be programmed like this. Yes, official remembrance has, in the very worst sense, been politicised way beyond endurance for most of us in the United Kingdom.

The Last Letter: the Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court

The Barbican Centre’s For the Fallen commemorations continued with this varied and thought-provoking programme, The Last Letter, which interweaved vocal and instrumental music with poems and prose, and focused on relationships - between husband and wife, fellow soldiers, young men and their homelands - disrupted by war.

Fiona Shaw's Cendrillon casts a spell: Glyndebourne Tour 2018

Fiona Shaw’s new production of Massenet’s Cendrillon (1899) for this year’s Glyndebourne Tour makes one feel that the annual Christmas treat at the ballet or the panto has come one month early.

The Rake’s Progress: Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic

Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is not, in many ways, a progressive opera; it doesn’t seek to radicalise, or even transform, opera and yet it is indisputably one of the great twentieth-century operas.

A raucous Così fan tutte at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Precisely where and when Così fan tutte takes place should be a matter of sublime indifference - or at least of individual taste. It is ‘about’ many things, but eighteenth-century Naples - should that actually be the less exotic yet still ‘othered’ neāpolis of Wiener Neustadt? - is not among them.

For the Fallen: James Macmillan's All the Hills and Vales Along at Barbican Hall

‘He has clothed his attitude in fine words: but he has taken the sentimental attitude.’ So, wrote fellow war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley of the last sonnets of Rupert Brooke.

English Touring Opera: Troubled fidelities and faiths

‘Can engaging with contemporary social issues save the opera?’ asked M. Sophia Newman last week, on the website, News City, noting that many commentators believe that ‘public interest in stuffy, intimidating, expensive opera is inevitably dwindling’, and that ‘several recent opera productions suggest that interest in a new kind of urban, less formally-staged, socially-engaged opera is emerging and drawing in new audiences to the centuries-old art form’.

Himmelsmusik: L'Arpeggiata bring north and south together at Wigmore Hall

Johann Theile, Crato Bütner, Franz Tunder, Christian Ritter, Giovanni Felice Sances … such names do not loom large in the annals of musical historiography. But, these and other little-known seventeenth-century composers took their place alongside Bach and Biber, Schütz and Monteverdi during L’Arpeggiata’s most recent exploration of musical cross-influences and connections.

Piotr Beczała – Polish and Italian art song, Wigmore Hall London

Can Piotr Beczała sing the pants off Jonas Kaufmann ? Beczała is a major celebrity who could fill a big house, like Kaufmann does, and at Kaufmann prices. Instead, Beczała and Helmut Deutsch reached out to that truly dedicated core audience that has made the reputation of the Wigmore Hall : an audience which takes music seriously enough to stretch themselves with an eclectic evening of Polish and Italian song.

Soloists excel in Chelsea Opera Group's Norma at Cadogan Hall

“Let us not be ashamed to be carried away by the simple nobility and beauty of a lucid melody of Bellini. Let us not be ashamed to shed a tear of emotion as we hear it!”

Handel's Serse: Il Pomo d'Oro at the Barbican Hall

Sadly, and worryingly, there are plenty of modern-day political leaders - both dictators and the democratically elected - whose petulance, stubbornness and egoism threaten the safety of their own subjects as well as the stability and security of other nations.

Dutch touring Tosca is an edge-of-your-seat thriller

Who needs another Tosca? Seasoned opera buffs can be blasé about repertoire mainstays. But the Nederlandse Reisopera’s production currently touring the Netherlands is worth seeing, whether it is your first or your hundred-and-first acquaintance with Puccini’s political drama. The staging is refreshing and pacey. Musically, it has the four crucial ingredients: three accomplished leads and a conductor who swashbuckles through the score in a blaze of color.

David Alden's fine Lucia returns to ENO

The burden of the past, and the duty to ensure its survival in the present and future, exercise a violent grip on the male protagonists in David Alden’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor for English National Opera, with dangerous and disturbing consequences.

Verdi's Requiem at the ROH

The full title of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem per l’anniversario della morte di Manzoni 22 maggio 1874 attests to its origins, but it was the death of Giacomo Rossini on 13th November 1868 that was the initial impetus for Verdi’s desire to compose a Requiem Mass which would honour Rossini, one of the figureheads of Italian cultural magnificence, in a national ceremony which - following the example of Cherubini’s C minor Requiem and Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts - was to be as much a public and political occasion as a religious one.

Wexford Festival 2018

The 67th Wexford Opera Festival kicked off with three mighty whacks of a drum and rooster’s raucous squawk, heralding the murderous machinations of the drug-dealing degenerate, Cim-Fen, in Franco Leoni’s one-act blood-and-guts verismo melodrama, L’oracolo … alongside an announcement by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan, of an award of €1 million in capital funding for the National Opera House to support necessary updating and refurbishment works over the next 3 years.

A New La bohème Opens Season at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 2018-19 season with Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème. This new production, shared with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and with the Teatro Real, Madrid, features an accomplished cast and innovative scenic approaches.

Arabella in San Francisco

A great big guy in a great big fur coat falls in love with the photo of the worldly daughter of a compulsive gambler. A great big conductor promotes the maelstrom of great big music that shepherds all this to ecstatic conclusion.

Two falls out of three for Britten in Seattle Screw

The miasma of doom that pervades the air of the great house of Bly seems to seep slowly into the auditorium, dulling the senses, weighing down the mind. What evil lurks here? Can these people be saved? Do we care?

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Wilfred Owen
13 Oct 2013

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem

Britten’s War Requiem is one of the defining artistic works of the twentieth century. Consummate artwork, religious ritual and prayer, ceremonial commemoration, ideological political statement, public expression of mourning, and private avowal of faith,

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Wilfred Owen

 

it demands performances which make a memorable, indelible mark on our consciousness and conscience. This haunting, arresting performance at the Royal Festival Hall by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, will surely be treasured and esteemed, ineradicably etched in the minds and hearts of all present.

Composed for the rededication of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, following its destruction during WWII, the score of the War Requiem is immensely demanding is numerous ways. First, huge orchestral forces are required: a large orchestra, chamber orchestra, large choir, boys’ choir, three soloists - the soprano singing with the forces of the main chorus, baritone and tenor aligned with the chamber instrumentalists. These personnel not only require consummate handling and control in performance, but also thorough, rigorous preparation. On this occasion, throughout the performance Jurowski’s commanding appreciation and manipulation of the whole and of the details and minutiae was impressively assured; the merest sign from the baton, clear and precise, was all that the performers required, and confident, communal understanding was unfailingly evident.

But, more than this, the preparation of the vast forces had clearly been exemplary. The London Philharmonic Choir sang throughout as one voice, having been impressively marshalled by Chorus Director, Neville Creed. Creed also conducted the chamber orchestra with a notable attentiveness and sensitivity, directing the instrumentalists with intelligent expressivity but always alert to their function within the larger whole. Leader Peter Schoerman and the other instrumentalists played exquisitely and affectively, intermittent soloists within the broader canvas.

Trinity Boys’ Choir performed confidently, expertly prepared by director David Swinson. One small proviso though: their opening lines in the Requiem aeternum were almost inaudible, and they were hushed and distant throughout; while this certainly suggested a remote separation from human concerns, a little more ‘presence’ might have brought greater sense of the power of their ‘innocence’.

The second challenge that Britten presents is the score’s integration of different linguistic and musical strata, the Latin Mass and the poetry of Wilfred Owen interlacing in intricate ways, supported by complex orchestral textures and dialogues. This necessitates a penetrating vision, in order to appreciation and communicate the way in which the separate strands cohere to convey a powerful singular message. It was William Plomer, Britten’s librettist for Gloriana and the Church Parables, who wrote that: ‘It is a function of creative men to perceive the relations between thoughts, or things, or forms of expression that may seem utterly different, and to be able to combine them in some new form.’ In this regard, Jurowski provided a compelling and inspiring framework, but the massed celebrants of the Mass, each of the soloists and the members of the small chamber orchestra also demonstrated an intuitive understanding of their role within the larger whole.

The London Philharmonic Chorus powerfully communicated the ritual emotions of the Mass, making Britten’s complex, challenging choral writing sound relatively straightforward. In the opening Requiem aeternum, their pianissimo ‘Kyrie eleison’ shimmered with an unearthly glow, while at the start of the subsequent Dies Irae they responded with thrilling passion to the terror and drama of the angular off-beat brass - the vigorous horn fanfares recalling the bugle calls of the Serenade and of Owen Wingrave - before subsiding to an eerie, exhausted calm: ‘Mors stupebit et natura/ Cum resurget creatura/ Judicanti responsura’ (Death and nature will be astounded/ When creation rises again/ To answer the Judge). The sopranos and altos pleaded with focused unity in the ‘Recordare’ before the male choral voices made more urgent pleas, underpinned by the pressing rhythms of the horns. In the Offertorium, the complex textures of interlacing choral and instrumental voices were expertly defined; at the close the Choir delivered the text with affecting, poignant fleetness, ‘Quam olim Abraham’ (Which thou did promise …).

Replacing Tatiana Monogarova, the advertised soloist, Russian soprano Evelina Dobračeva sang with impressive single-mindedness and heroism. Positioned in the balcony with the main body of the Choir, she soared exquisitely above the massed forces, never shrill, floating with power and focus - a pure emblem of the sentiments of the ritual. Crystalline of tone and with powerful projection in the ‘Liber scriptus proferetur’ section of the Dies Irae, Dobračeva built to a majestic climax; later in the movement, soprano and choir responded with passion to the incisive violence of the percussive rhythms and the off-beat aggression of timpani and cymbals. In the ‘Libera me’, initially supported by some wondrously fleeting violin gestures, the soprano rose effortlessly above the accruing instrumental thunder as the asymmetrical tempi drove the music towards apocalypse.

Singing with the chamber orchestra, it is the two male soloists who, paradoxically, convey the most intimate experience and emotions, and who speak most directly to the audience. Presenting Owen’s ‘Bugles sang, saddening the evening air’ in the Dies Irae, German baritone Matthias Goerne movingly communicated the oppressive weight that burdens those who, ‘Bowed by the shadow of the morrow, slept’. Later in the movement, Goerne brought both a rhetorical grandeur and a disturbing sense of brutality to the poem, ‘Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm’. In the Sanctus, the agony of the restlessly questioning poet-speaker was conveyed, aided by some discomforting timpani strokes. Initially Goerne’s diction and pronunciation may have been less than clear, but it is worth remembering that the baritone role was composed for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (with Peter Pears singing the tenor part), and that the two soldiers represent the opposing forces in the war. This is most powerfully and intensely apparent in the final ‘Strange Meeting’; here, Goerne and the string players of the chamber ensemble condensed the horror, pain and senselessness of war. The ghostly reverberations of the line, ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’, were surpassed only by the unnerving emptiness of the final line, accompanied by deathly string tremors: ‘I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.’

Joining Goerne, tenor Ian Bostridge offered a typically penetrating and perceptive reading of the poetic texts. His unrelieved indignation in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ immediately challenged us, establishing a disconcerting mood, one enhanced by the probing clarinet solo which accompanies the lines, ‘What candles may be held to speed them all?/ Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes /Shall sine the holy glimmers of good-byes.’ ‘Move him into the sun’ was imbued with a ghostly disquiet, which was marvellously, if temporarily, calmed by the Choir’s consoling, major-key cadence, ‘Pie Jesu Domine … Amen’. Articulating the English soldier’s tale in ‘Strange Meeting’, Bostridge injected a startling, unpredictable energy as he described how he examined the corpses upon which he stumbled, ‘Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared’; the tenor’s voice accompanied by the responsive chamber orchestra, startlingly embodying the probing, springing movements of the dead. The full texture which accompanied Bostridge’s greeting, ‘“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn”, was almost unbearably poignant.

At the end of a performance which was simultaneously emotionally exhausting and exhilarating, the concluding choral Amen had a Mahlerian power and pathos. This was a performance that was both theatrical and spiritual, and made an immense impression on all present; the long silence which followed the final utterance, Jurowski’s baton suspended aloft, told of its emotional impact on those in the Festival Hall.

The Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise Festival is inspired by Alex Ross’s eponymous book which explores the social, political and cultural forces which shaped the art of the twentieth century. As we prepare for the centenary commemorations of the 1914-1918 war, the War Requiem’s fusion of Owen’s honest poetry - devoid of self-pity but angrily asserting the very Pity of war - and the timelessness of the Latin Requiem Mass, together with the circumstances of the work’s own commission - the re-consecration of a sacred building destroyed in yet another world conflict that Owen must have hoped his words would help prevent - remind us that we still have not heeded the Poets’ moral caution of the futility of war.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Vladimir Jurowski, conductor; Evelina Dobračeva, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Matthias Goerne, baritone; Neville Creed, conductor (chamber orchestra); London Philharmonic Orchestra; London Philharmonic Choir; Trinity Boys’ Choir. Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, Saturday 12th October 2013.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):