War Requiem at the ENO review ****

War Requiem

English National Opera, London Coliseum, 22nd November 2018

Please probably inevitable that the Tourist, armed with the freedom (and fortunately the budget) to gad about town, his love of Benjamin Britten’s music and his wish to continue to honour those who die in pointless wars was going to end up attending a performance of War Requiem this year. The ENO version, which had the added draw of the Porgy and Bess cast, (augmenting the ENO’s marvellous choir), and the involvement of German photographer artist Wolfgang Tillmans looked the likeliest candidate.

I, or more correctly we, as TMBOAD, a scion of Coventry and admirer of the work, joined me, got way more than we bargained for. I had expected a semi-staged concert performance, with maybe a few arty slides in the background. Instead we got a full scale dramatic interpretation of BB’s oratorio, with the three soloists and choirs telling the story of Wilfred Owen’s war poems, alongside the setting of the Latin Requiem, fully costumed, with very effective lighting from Charles Balfour, augmenting the  and with Mr Tillmans distinctive photographic techniques adding further colour. 

Obviously the War Requiem was not written as an opera but BB being BB it is   naturally dramatic and, up to a point, lends itself to an “operatic” interpretation. Having said that, the very nature and subject of the work, even in its most striking scoring, is steadily paced and having the ENO orchestra, solidly conducted by Martyn Brabbins, in the pit and a chorus constantly in motion, and indeed often prone, inevitably has some impact on what we heard. But this was, moreorless, compensated by what we saw, which was, at times, extremely powerful.

Back to the story. WR was first performed in May 1962 for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, built alongside the ruins of the C14 original destroyed in Luftwaffe bombing raids in November 1940 (see above). BB, a lifelong pacifist, scored the work for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, chorus, boys’ choir, organ, and two orchestras (a full orchestra and a chamber orchestra). The full orchestrated choirs and soprano are used to accompany the sections of the Latin Requiem. to represent formal, transcendent grief, with the chamber forces and male soloists, representing two opposing soldiers, singing the interspersed English poetry. The children’s choir, accompanied by a chamber organ, present a more distant presence, innocence corrupted, an ever-present BB theme.

BB had originally intended that Peter Pears, an Englishman, sang the tenor role, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a German, the baritone and Galina Vishnevskaya, a Russian, the soprano, but the Soviet authorities prevented the latter from travelling so Heather Harper stepped in. The classic recording with the LSO and Bach Choir conduced by BB, which everyone should own, has the original trio however. (Mind you there are plenty to choose from). 

BB unfortunately couldn’t conduct the CBSO at the premiere but no matter. The performance was a triumph. The Tourist has enjoyed a fair few performances in his time, (and seen the curious Derek Jarman film interpretation which is notable for Sir Larry O’s last ever performance). The music always delivers and so it was here. Now in addition to the contrast provided by the juxtaposition of the poem settings and the six movements of the Requiem itself (Requiem aeternam, Dies irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Libera me, BB apparently uses the interval of a tritone between C and F sharp (an interval of three whole tones, known as the “devil in music”) as a recurring motif to create harmonic distance and then resolution, notably in the Agnus Dei, and thus evoke the notion of conflict and resolution. Elsewhere there are various brass fanfares, string arpeggios, marches and fugues in various three part time signatures, and various repetitions of lines, but the full vocal forces do not combine until the very end. So three is the magic number here.

Even if you don’t know your tritone from your backside your ears will still easily navigate their way through the score even on first hearing, such is the immediacy of B’s orchestration. And there are enough OMG musical moments to pull you up short. And that’s before you even get to the texts. Particular highlights for me are the extract from Anthem for Doomed Youth for tenor in the opening Requiem Aeternam, the soprano and chorus Lacrimosa in the Des irae, the Domine Jesu Christe from the boys’ choir, the Parable of the Old Man and the Young for tenor and baritone, The Sanctus and Benedictus, Strange Meeting with the lilting, poignant lullaby “Let us sleep now ….” and indeed pretty much everything else in the Libera me at the end. 

So, if the music, words and message reliably overwhelm, and get you thinking deeply about the utter horror and pointlessness of war, what is added through a full scale staging. Well, having the chorus on stage, variously signifying troops, refugees, dead bodies, I am assuming, was intriguing. A remarkable choreographic achievement from Ann Yee allied with costume design by Nasir Mazhar. Mr Tillmans most successfully employed close up, sharply exposed photographic images drawn, I believe, from  Coventry Cathedral itself in the three screen back drop to the stage, which dissolved into blocks of muted colour, and there were some fine tableaux (notably a snow/mushroom cloud effect) courtesy of ENO house director Daniel Kramer. Having said that, and despite the remarkable efforts of dramaturg Luc Joosten, carving out a sort of narrative when none is really there, there were a few moments when the various elements didn’t quite gel and the on-stage shuffling, and overt literalism, was more distraction than illumination. 

But no matter. It is one of the finest, acclaimed and most powerful pieces of classical music written in the second half of the C20. The Tourist has seen a fair few performances of impassioned anti-war classical work in the last few weeks, George Crumb’s Black Angels, Shostakovich Eighth String Quartet, Turnage’s The Silver Tassie, but this ranks as the definitive statement. And, with soloists of the calibre of Roderick Williams, David Butt Philip, and, the tremendous Emma Bell as seer/earth mother/angel of death, there was never any real risk of disappointment.

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