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19 Nov 2018

Staging Britten's War Requiem

“The best music to listen to in a great Gothic church is the polyphony which was written for it, and was calculated for its resonance: this was my approach in the War Requiem - I calculated it for a big, reverberant acoustic and that is where it sounds best.”

Britten’s War Requiem, English National Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ensemble, War Requiem

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

 

The words of Benjamin Britten in his speech, On Receiving the First Aspen Award, on 31st July 1964, two years after the premiere of the composer’s War Requiem on 30 th May 1962 in Coventry Cathedral, the destruction, rebirth and consecration of which the work was commissioned to commemorate and celebrate.

Interestingly, in his Aspen Award speech Britten also reflected upon what he called the ‘so-called “permanent” value of our occasional music’, noting that we should not worry too much as, ‘A lot of it cannot make much sense after its first performance, and it is quite a good thing to please people, even if only for today’. And, pragmatically Britten observed, ‘One must face the fact today that the vast majority of musical performances take place as far away from the original as it is possible to imagine’.

There have, inevitably, been numerous performances of Britten’s War Requiem this year, some in gothic cathedrals, others in venues of diverse function, form and acoustic. English National Opera’s Artistic Director Daniel Kramer and Turner Prize-winning artist Wolfgang Tillmans have now brought the War Requiem into the opera house and placed it upon the theatrical stage. In so doing, they continue the trend for staging Passions, oratorios and Requiem masses which has seen Deborah Warner, Peter Sellars, Jonathan Millar, Calixto Bieito et al attempt to make ‘drama’ from ritual and liturgy.

Britten’s War Requiem captured the sentiments of a world reeling with the grief of a century of war. Britten spoke in his Aspen Award speech of the ‘many times in history the artist has made a conscious effort to speak with the voice of the people’. His belief that it was the responsibility of the creative artist to communicate directly to society was expressed time and again: in his speeches on receiving the Freedom of the Borough of Aldeburgh and on Receiving Honorary Degree at Hull University’, both in 1962, for example.

But, the Requiem is many things. It is a public statement of the composer’s own pacifism, prompting our understanding that war does not cease when warring nations put down their guns. It is also a homage to Wilfred Owen, whom Britten described as ‘by far our greatest war poet, and one of the most original and touching poets of this century’. Britten scholar Philip Reed has suggested that what Britten admired was the directness of Owen’s poetry and the fact that it highlighted the ‘ironic conflict of verbal and musical messages’ when juxtaposed with the Latin Requiem text.

So, in additional to the verbal and musical messages, do we need visual images too? What will they add, diminish, change?

Essentially, Kramer’s and Tillmans’ War Requiem is a series of such visual images, presented with technological slickness and potently lit by Charles Balfour. None of these images are inappropriate; some, in my view at least, are somewhat hackneyed; some are striking.

Kramer and Tillmans begin with reference to a visually driven narrative which was designed to bring about social and cultural change. Two halves of an open book tower over and straddle the stage in the ‘Requiem aeternam’. The pages of Ernst Friedrich’s War Against War flick over, exposing the captions and photographs which the young German - an anarchist and anti-militarist activist who had been incarcerated during WW1 for his refusal to fight - intended to unmask nationalistic propaganda and lay bare the false narratives of militaristic rhetoric. Disfigured faces - ‘The Visage of War’ - stare at us, as we stare at them: through such visual activism Friedrich aimed to challenge politically correct ‘ways of seeing’ and create an experienced, rather than imagined, intimacy between viewer and viewed.

RW and football.jpgRoderick Williams and Ensemble. Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

But, the pages of the book turn quickly, evading our gaze, and are succeeded by images of other conflicts, horrors and inhumanity. During the ‘Liber scriptus proferetur’, a poster, ‘Breaking the Silence: Gender and Genocide’, urges us to remember the massacre in Srebenica in 1995. Then, the uniforms are of a different kind of patriotic allegiance as bottle-throwing football thugs march through the streets. Monochrome photographs of the ruined shards of Coventry Cathedral remind us of the origins of the work - composed in the aftermath of another world war, and at the height of the Cold War with the threat of nuclear conflict terrifyingly real - and of Britten’s remark, made during rehearsal for the 1963 Decca recording, that the ‘Libera Me’ “happens today to mean something”.

Britten ensemble nature.jpgPhoto credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Juxtaposed with man’s inhumanity are nature’s cycles of decay, death and renewal. The camera scrutinises the stripped bark of a fallen tree trunk as it sheds its protective skin, skims sea-surf scummy with pollution, and hugs a ground embraced by ferns and moss. A cloud of snow explodes, bringing another war poem by Owen to mind, with its image of ‘air that shudders black with snow’. The snow-dust blankets the stage - assuaging and beneficent, or hostile to man who has negated nature and alienated himself from its nurture?

There are some moments where image, word and movement are brought together. ‘So Abram rose’ and the ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ are illustrated by an aerial shot of a sacrificial sheep, as tenor David Butt Philip, dressed in an officer’s great-coat, oversees a procession children: lambs to the slaughter, indeed, or as Owen bitterly describes, ‘men who die like cattle’.

David Butt Philip and Ensemble.jpgPhoto credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

When asked about the ‘sweetness’ of the War Requiem’s final pages, in an interview with Charles Osbourne in 1963, Britten responded, “I can’t see any great defect in sweetness as long as it’s not weakness”. At the close, Kramer and Tillmans open a window on dense, verdant leaves of renewal, though the lingering agitations of the side drum and snares seem more in keeping with the ambivalent questions of Owen’s poem ‘The End’: ‘Shall Life renew these bodies? Of a truth/All death will He annul, all tears assuage?’

The choreography of the enlarged ranks of the ENO Chorus - who sang with fervency and impact - offers no surprises. They lie motionless, are marshalled in ranks, they march, they mourn. They, and the projected images, don’t ‘show’ us anything that we can’t already hear. Fluctuating grey-green fogginess backlights the ‘Libera me’, but we can hear the cacophonous slaughter in the violence of the percussion and, later, in the quasi-hysterical eruptions of the ‘Dies irae’. Moreover, the power of the customary spatial separation of the three ‘strata’ of the War Requiem - with the two soldiers exposed in the foreground, the liturgical consolations of the soprano and full chorus behind them, and the innocence of the children’s choir placed at an unreachable remove - is lost; as is the contrast between the chamber orchestra and full symphony, though the ENO Orchestra gave us clanging colours and vivid textures, and conductor Martyn Brabbins successfully balanced spaciousness and intensity.

Williams and Ensemble.jpgRoderick Williams and Ensemble. Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The members of Finchley Children’s Music Group were well-regimented choreographically and vocally spick and span. Emma Bell’s vivid but sometimes overly feverish rendition of the soprano solos offered few of the consolations that we might expect of a celebrant of the Mass. But, tenor David Butt Philip and baritone Roderick Williams both gave committed and musically affecting performances.

Roderick Williams David Butt Philip (c) Richard Hubert Smith.jpg Roderick Williams and David Butt Philip. Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The most powerful moments are those of stillness and simplicity. After some uncomfortable music-hall style gestures in ‘Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death’, which weakened the irony inherent in the music, Butt Philip and Williams stood motionless in ‘Strange Meeting’, freed from the horrors of the battlefields they have left behind but trapped, restless, in a mysterious nightmare. The strength of Butt Philip’s tone betrayed all of the dead soldier’s bewilderment and disillusion, while Williams’ gentleness accommodated both the bitterness and pity of the counterpart who rises from the piles of languishing souls and whose ‘dead smile’ expresses his wry recognition of the futility of war: ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.[…]/ Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed./ I parried; but my hands were loath and cold./ Let us sleep now …’.

Here, surely, was the place for Friedrich’s mutilated men for whom there are no ‘friends/enemies’ or ‘us/them’, only victim-soldiers, and whose shattered bodies and faces short-circuit conventional oppositional narratives of conflict?

Kramer and Tillmans demonstrate care and respect for Britten’s work, but the result feels oddly passive and distanced. And, they risk, in their emphasis on the visual at the expense of the verbal and musical, turning the War Requiem into a film score.

Claire Seymour

Britten: War Requiem

Emma Bell (soprano), David Butt Philip (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone); Daniel Kramer (director), Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Wolfgang Tillmans (designer), Nasir Mazhar (costume designer), Justin Nardella (associate designer, Charles Balfour (lighting designer), Ann Yee (choreographer), ENO Orchestra and Chorus, Finchley Children’s Music Group, Sylvia Young Theatre School.

English National Opera, Coliseum, London; Friday 16th November 2018.

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