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

Music for a While: Rowan Pierce and Christopher Glynn at Ryedale Online

“Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile.”

A Musical Reunion at Garsington Opera

The hum of bees rising from myriad scented blooms; gentle strains of birdsong; the cheerful chatter of picnickers beside a still lake; decorous thwacks of leather on willow; song and music floating through the warm evening air.

'In my end is my beginning': Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida perform Winterreise at Wigmore Hall

All good things come to an end, so they say. Let’s hope that only the ‘good thing’ part of the adage is ever applied to Wigmore Hall, and that there is never any sign of ‘an end’.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny bring 'sweet music' to Wigmore Hall

Countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny kicked off the final week of live lunchtime recitals broadcast online and on radio from Wigmore Hall.

From Our House to Your House: live from the Royal Opera House

I’m not ashamed to confess that I watched this live performance, streamed from the stage of the Royal Opera House, with a tear in my eye.

Woman’s Hour with Roderick Williams and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

At the start of this lunchtime recital, Roderick Williams set out the rationale behind the programme that he and pianist Joseph Middleton presented at Wigmore Hall, bringing to a close a second terrific week of live lunchtime broadcasts, freely accessible via Wigmore Hall’s YouTube channel and BBC Radio 3.

Natalya Romaniw - Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul

Sailing home to Corinth, bearing treasures won in a music competition, the mythic Greek bard, Arion, found his golden prize coveted by pirates and his life in danger.

Purcell’s The Indian Queen from Lille

Among the few compensations opera lovers have had from the COVID crisis is the abundance – alas, plethora – of streamed opera productions we might never have seen or even known of without it.

Philip Venables' Denis & Katya: teenage suicide and audience complicity

As an opera composer, Philip Venables writes works quite unlike those of many of his contemporaries. They may not even be operas at all, at least in the conventional sense - and Denis & Katya, the most recent of his two operas, moves even further away from this standard. But what Denis & Katya and his earlier work, 4.48 Psychosis, have in common is that they are both small, compact forces which spiral into extraordinarily powerful and explosive events.

A new, blank-canvas Figaro at English National Opera

Making his main stage debut at ENO with this new production of The Marriage of Figaro, theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins professes to have found it difficult to ‘develop a conceptual framework for the production to inhabit’.

Massenet’s Chérubin charms at Royal Academy Opera

“Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio … Now I’m fire, now I’m ice, any woman makes me change colour, any woman makes me quiver.”

Bluebeard’s Castle, Munich

Last year the world’s opera companies presented only nine staged runs of Béla Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

The Queen of Spades at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If obsession is key to understanding the dramatic and musical fabric of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, the current production at Lyric Opera of Chicago succeeds admirably in portraying such aspects of the human psyche.

WNO revival of Carmen in Cardiff

Unveiled by Welsh National Opera last autumn, this Carmen is now in its first revival. Original director Jo Davies has abandoned picture postcard Spain and sun-drenched vistas for images of grey, urban squalor somewhere in modern-day Latin America.

Lise Davidsen 'rescues' Tobias Kratzer's Fidelio at the Royal Opera House

Making Fidelio - Beethoven’s paean to liberty, constancy and fidelity - an emblem of the republican spirit of the French Revolution is unproblematic, despite the opera's censor-driven ‘Spanish’ setting.

A sunny, insouciant Così from English Touring Opera

Beach balls and parasols. Strolls along the strand. Cocktails on the terrace. Laura Attridge’s new production of Così fan tutte which opened English Touring Opera’s 2020 spring tour at the Hackney Empire, is a sunny, insouciant and often downright silly affair.

A wonderful role debut for Natalya Romaniw in ENO's revival of Minghella's Madama Butterfly

The visual beauty of Anthony Minghella’s 2005 production of Madama Butterfly, now returning to the Coliseum stage for its seventh revival, still takes one’s breath away.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Seattle

It appears that Charlie Parker’s Yardbird has reached the end of its road in Seattle. Since it opened in 2015 at Opera Philadelphia it has played Arizona, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and the English National Opera.

La Périchole in Marseille

The most notable of all Péricholes of Offenbach’s sentimental operetta is surely the legendary Hortense Schneider who created the role back in 1868 at Paris’ Théâtre des Varietés. Alas there is no digital record.

Three Centuries Collide: Widmann, Ravel and Beethoven

It’s very rare that you go to a concert and your expectation of it is completely turned on its head. This was one of those. Three works, each composed exactly a century apart, beginning and ending with performances of such clarity and brilliance.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

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.

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):