Saturday 17 November 2018

Britten's War Requiem at English National Opera

Britten:War Requiem - English National Opera - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Britten: War Requiem - English National Opera - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Britten War Requiem; Emma Bell, David Butt Philip, Roderick Williams, English National Opera, Martyn Brabbins, Daniel Kramer; London Coliseum Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 November 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Staging the unstageable, Daniel Kramer and ENO's striking version of Britten's large-scale concert work

Britten:War Requiem - David Butt Philip - English National Opera - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Britten: War Requiem - David Butt Philip - English National Opera
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
It might not seem obvious idea to stage Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, the large-scale hieratic nature of the forces Britten uses would seem to mitigate against a staging. But having staged a Bach passion, Handel's Messiah, Tippett's Child of our Time, English National Opera again took up the challenge on Friday 16 November 2018. Daniel Kramer directed a production which was designed by Wolfgang Tillmans with costumes by fashion designer Nasir Mazhar. Martyn Brabbins with soloists Emma Bell, David Butt Philip and Roderick Williams, plus the Finchley Children's Music Group. The choreography was by Ann Yee, the lighting by Charles Balfour and the dramaturg was Luc Joosten.

The hieratic nature of Britten's work was largely ignored in the staging, this was very much a theatre event. The children (not just a boys' chorus) were present on stage supplemented by child actors from the Sylvia Young Theatre School. Daniel Kramer created a series of dramatic situations, with the chorus interacting with the soloists in a way which does not happen musically, and there was less of a feeling of separation between the soprano soloist (Emma Bell) and the rest of the forces. The problem of the chorus (Britten wrote for a large amateur choir) was solved rather neatly by combining the members of the regular ENO chorus with the ENO Porgy and Bess Ensemble (the BAME chorus created for Porgy and Bess) to make a chorus of around 80 professional singers (which included such distinguished solo names as Sarah-Jane Lews, Ronald Samm and Njabulo Madlala). Both chamber orchestra and full orchestra were in the pit (with the percussion overflowing into the boxes).

Britten:War Requiem - Emma Bell, Olufemi Alaka - English National Opera - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Britten: War Requiem - Emma Bell, Olufemi Alaka
English National Opera - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Kramer created a series of dramatic scenes, which seemed to dramatise moments from a variety of wars, responding to the particular forces that Britten was writing for in each section. At first, this seemed an interesting solution but gradually built into a sense of drama which added to the work. Perhaps my attitude took some time to settle because the opening seemed something of a mis-step. Whilst the static, barely lit chorus sang the muttered 'Requiem', two large screens had images from an anti-war tract projected up. The images and the accompanying texts pulled attention away from the music (as will always happen), the scene lasted too long and most importantly the images were horribly graphic, not just photos of early plastic surgery victims but semi-naked images of the dead (undignified and insensitive in this context).

Then the screens moved and we seemed to be in some sort of concentration camp. The overall dramaturgy and choreography was effective but seemed rather grafted onto the music. Dressed as a combatant, David Butt Philip's first entry was astonishing. Not so much for the visuals, as for the way he brought such pain and concentrated intensity to his performance, such fine focus to his musical line and he created a strong character. Similarly, Roderick Williams brought a feeling of passionate identification with the material and a sense of confiding, even though across the wide open space of the London Coliseum. Whilst Butt Philip and Williams were clearly the embodiment of combatants in war, Emma Bell's role seemed less clear and she was something like a mourning angel, the embodiment of the sense of female loss and anger. The two final solos in the 'Dies Irae' sequence, Williams' 'Be slowly lifted up' and Butt Phlips' 'Move him into the sun' started to make a really strong musico-dramatic connection, the two singers making us care about these characters.

This developed in the 'Offertorium' where the adult activity contrasted with that of the children, who were being entertained by Butt Philip and Williams, though of course, this entertainment goes horribly wrong as Wilfred Owen's re-working of the story of Abraham and Isaac ends with profound violence.

Britten:War Requiem - Roderick Williams - English National Opera - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)*
Britten: War Requiem - Roderick Williams - English National Opera - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
The 'Sanctus' again changed scene, and the scene changes were accompanied by visuals from Tillmans and improvisations (uncredited) from the percussion section. This scene started with children in snow, then we saw an open grave and the movement developed into a military burial service with Emma Bell leading the mourning with a young child, clearly disturbed by events. Roderick Williams' 'After the blast' seemed to be being sung by the spirit of the dead man, and then as we moved into the 'Agnus Dei', David Butt Philip's truly mesmerising acount of the solo 'One ever hangs where shelled roads meet' seemed to accompany the assembling of children who were then marched off to war.

This gave the intensity of the 'Libera me' a concrete dramatic image, the chorus mourning the loss of children being sent to war, and at the end of the movement two child soldiers appeared, the embodiment of the two men in the final of Britten's insertions from Wilfred Owen, the sequence which climaxes with the baritone's 'I am the enemy you killed, my friend'. By then we were hooked and cared deeply for these people, whoever they are.

Wolfgang Tillman's designs were mainly photographic images, moving between the concrete and the abstract, with the ruins of Coventry Cathedral featuring at one point. Striking but more of an installation than a stage design, occasionally the images had a rather bathetic quality (the deformed lamb during the 'Agnus Dei').

The chorus sang magnificently, I was slightly worried about the effect of vibrato-laden operatic voices on Britten's choral music, and the music he writes in War Requiem is complex. But the result at a challenging directness, and Kramer's production seemed to know when to leave the choral singers well alone. In the pit, Martyn Brabbins controlled his complex forces with aplomb, though speeds sometimes seemed a bit on the slow side. The orchestras, both large and small, played magnificently.

Britten:War Requiem -  English National Opera - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)*
Britten: War Requiem -  English National Opera - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Musically this was a very strong occasion, and if Kramer and Tillmans put the occasional foot wrong, the cumulative power of the staging really drew us in. With such a strong trio of soloists, it might seem wrong to single one out, but for me, David Butt Philip's performance has such a searingly focused intensity to it that it really burned.

You can see Tillmans' own images of the production in an article in The Guardian.
Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Rare Tchaikovsky and Smyth: an earlier version of the piano concerto and Smyth's large-scale mass at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Elgar, Finzi, Parry, Walton from a different angle: arrangements for brass septet  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Love & Prayer: Nadine Benjamin debut solo album (★★★★) - CD review
  • A sense of subtext: Joe Cutler's Elsewhereness on NMC (★★★★) - CD review
  • Otherwordly concerns: Anderswelt - Marlis Petersen and Camillo Radicke in late-Romantic lieder (★★★★) - CD review
  • Late genius and two sextets: Strauss, Haydn and Brahms at Conway Hall  (★★★½)  - concert review
  • Iconic but flawed: La Bayadère the Royal Ballet  - ballet review
  • Reformation Remainers: Musicians, zealots and loyalists in Tudor England at BREMF - concert review
  • In Remembrance - choral discs commemorating the centenary of the Armistice  - CD review
  • Spirito: Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka in bel canto scenes (★★★★½) - CD review
  • A Mahler Piano Series: Echoes of the East  (★★★½) - concert review
  • All he wanted to do was make people cry  - article
  • Intimate grandeur: Fulham Opera in Verdi's five-act version of Don Carlo  (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Telling tales - Cheryl Frances Hoad's Magic Lantern Tales from Champs Hill (★★★★) - CD review
  •  Home

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