Saturday, 20 August 2016

Mozartian music theatre: 'Requiem... and life before' in Tallinn

Mireille Mosse, Uku Uusberg - Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn  photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Mireille Mosse, Uku Uusberg - Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn
 photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Mozart, Joel Lauwers Requiem... and life before; Uku Uusberg, Yuka Yanagihara, Helen Lokuta, Thomas Volle, Simon Robinson, Latvian State Choir, Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, dir: Joel Lauwers, cond: Mihhail Gerts; Birgitta Festival, Tallinn
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 19 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Music theatre piece based on Mozart's music and letters, performed in the ruins of an Estonian convent

Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn -  photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Uku Uusberg and soloists
Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn  photo Heiti Kruusmaa
The Birgitta Festival takes place annually in the ruins of the Pirita Convent in Tallinn. A temporary roof is placed over the ruins of the church and a theatre created, with bars and facilities in marquees dotted about the remaining ruins. The festival's artistic programme combines visiting companies with their own productions. The programme this year has included a flamenco version of Carmen, and Mozart's Cosi fan tutte performed by the UK-based Black Cat Opera Company with new designs by an Estonian designer.

For the first of my two visits to this year's festival on Friday 19 August 2016 I saw Requiem... and life before a music theatre piece by Joel Lauwers based on Mozart's Requiem and texts from his letters. Joel Lauwers designed and directed, Mihhail Gerts conducted the Latvian State Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. Actor Uku Uusberg played the protagonist Eugene Trazom, soprano Yuka Yanagihara played Aileen, Trazom's wife, mezzo-soprano Helen Lokuta played Marianne, Trazom's sister, tenor Thomas Volle played Emanuel, Trazom's friend and bass Simon Robinson played Trazom's father, with actors Andri Luup, Tiia als, Kaja Plovits, Elisabeth Peterson, and Kaido Kelder. The French actress Mireille Mosse played Mrs Death.

Latvian State Choir - Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn  - photo  Heiti Kruusmaa
Latvian State Choir photo  Heiti Kruusmaa
The first half consisted of spoken text, taken from Mozart's letters and given to the actor Uku Uusberg who played not a composer but a contemporary photographer. The rest of the cast were mute, acting around him. The drama played out the usual round of births, marriages and deaths, with Uusberg producing a veritable torrent of words speaking so fast that at times it was difficult to read the surtitles.

The set had a large lozenge shaped pit in the middle (for the orchestra), with the fore-stage thus divided into two main acting areas, stage left was the Trazom's home, and stage right was the domain of Mireille Mosse's Mrs Death. Here was an open grave, and here she summoned people to die. At the rear of the stage was a screen on which projections changed, varying from the Pirita ruins themselves to city scenes. The screen could open to reveal a tableau often involving the chorus, these were not always silent and would sometimes invade the stage making random noises.

The result was striking and intriguing, though we gained only a little sense of the protagonist's inner life. At the moment of his unexpected death, the Requiem started with his wife (soprano Yuka Yanagihara) singing the soprano solo in the opening movement at the funeral obsequies. The movements of the Requiem proceeded through the various mourning rituals for the protagonist, but in fact he had refused to die and formed a spectator at these with a constant, silent duel being fought between Uku Uusberg's Trazom and Mireille Mosse's Mrs Death. Much was made of their physicality, Mosse is diminutive (Wikipedia states that she is only 120cm tall and Uusberg is more than twice that). Finally, at the end of the Requiem, Trazom descended.

It was an intriguing prospect, and formed a striking dramatic complement to the sung Requiem.
Uku Uusberg, Latvian State Choir - Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Uku Uusberg, Latvian State Choir - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
I thought that the spoken section lasted rather too long at nearly an hour, and the selection from Mozart's letters lacking both discussion of musical issues and the scatalogical, jokey passages, omitted an important counterpoint. There was a failure of the surtitles for the crucial final sections of the spoken text, so it may be that I missed something important. The staging of the Requiem was very effective and brought the work to stage life, though I thought that in the latter part Joel Lauwers seemed to be running out of rituals to stage and an element of repetitiveness crept in.

All the singers were miked, and the sound was strong and focussed, but lacked a sense of directionality. The sound picture was more like listening to a recording than watching a stage event. The Latvian State Choir were on impressive form, making a strong, vibrant sound which managed to be stylishly Mozartian too. Of course, this was a large scale performance, but there is no problem with that when done well, as here. Mihhail Gerts controlled his forces were, and there were only one or two moments when the staging got in the way of ensemble. Half hidden from view, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra gave a mellifluous account of the score with some lovely playing from the all important basset clarinets.

The four soloists Yuka Yanagihara, Helen Lokuta, Thomas Volle, and Simon Robinson were on fine form. Yanagihara spun a fine line in the opening (and closing) solo and Lokuta sang with fine rich tone. The tenor's opening solo clearly held no terrors for Volle, and Robinson produced some lovely resonant tones for the 'Tuba mirum', though it was a shame that the logic of the drama meant that he sang much of the later solo part off stage.

Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn
Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
This was an intriguing event, very much sui generis, it was very much Joel Lauwers personal vision and as such the performance brought this to striking life.

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