English National Opera's timely new production of Benjamin Britten's pacifist War Requiem sees the work reaching new theatrical audiences in London.
Recent years have witnessed a collection of dramatic oratorios moving out of concert halls and religious spaces onto the operatic stage, ranging from Handel and Bach to Verdi's Requiem. Joining this list is Britten's War Requiem, prompted thanks to its blending of Wilfred Owen's vivid wartime poetry with the ritualised communal lamenting of the Latin Requiem Mass. The new staging at English National Opera which opened in November follows notable recent productions of this pacifist masterwork by Calixto Bieito in Basel and Oslo, and by Yoshi Oida in Lyon.
The London production was timed to follow closely on the centenary of the Armistice ending the supposed "war to end all wars", but the staging by Daniel Kramer with designs and imagery by Wolfgang Tillmans reminded us of the ongoing relevance of Britten's powerful score in the light of ongoing international conflicts. Soloists Roderick Williams, David Butt Philip and Emma Bell were joined by adult and children's choral voices and the ENO Orchestra conducted by the company's Music Director Martyn Brabbins.
"Britten’s great choral/vocal work is not an opera, although clearly it can respond well to theatrical treatment... The Turner-winning London-based German photographer and designer Wolfgang Tillmans is an inspired choice, filling the stage with disturbing images of Coventry Cathedral in ruins, close-ups of lichen growing on its shattered stones and harrowing portraits of young men’s faces mutilated beyond recognition by action in the so-called Great War, and more recent stills of the suffering in the aftermath of the Srebrenica genocide during the Bosnian War."
"The work in many ways lends itself to a staged treatment. Wilfred Owen’s plangent poetry has vibrant immediacy, with powerful symbolism such as the “long black arm” of field artillery and the “profound dull tunnel” in which the dead combatants find themselves at the end. Daniel Kramer and Wolfgang Tillmans conjure arresting images for many of these scenes. Particularly memorable is the appearance of the soprano soloist Emma Bell weaving among prostrate human figures, with a large white chrysanthemum against a black background, in the Lacrimosa."
"Images of the dead or maimed, of nature destroyed, of the bombed shell of Coventry Cathedral (so closely associated with the 1962 premiere of this work) provide backdrops for contemplation. The chorus, much of the time, move as one, bodies strewn, bringing to mind the strange symmetries of CRW Nevinson’s war art. All culminates in a sensuous, green redemption, depicted by a huge tree in full leaf. Martyn Brabbins, ENO’s music director, and the orchestra, brought out the music’s torment and grief."
"There is no attempt to impose a “plot”. Instead, Kramer and Tillmans devise separate responses to each movement, though each uses a shuffling or stricken chorus to represent humanity traumatised, terrorised or displaced. Roderick Williams and David Butt Philip deliver Owen’s sardonic rewrite of the Abraham and Isaac story as a sinister Sunday-school lesson. And there are also passing references to the tribal thuggery of football hooligans, the spate of knife crimes in today’s gang culture, and the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica."
"We see two young boys in military uniform, threatening each other with knives, a chilling image in the context of a surge in knife crime in London. And indeed, Daniel Kramer is keen to make the point that the War Requiem is no mere historic reaction to past events, but that the brutal realities it deals with tragically remain a fact of contemporary life. The raw, visceral quality of Britten’s score was emphasized here and played with huge concentration. The moments when time stands still could not have been more beautifully captured."
The centenary of the end of World War I has attracted high profile performances of the War Requiem in its more conventional concert setting, both in the UK and internationally in Paris, Lille, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, Madrid and Washington.
Photo: English National Opera/Richard Hubert Smith
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