3:26, 8th January 2019
Review by George Hall
Over recent decades it’s become fashionable for companies to stage oratorios and other choral works. Leading this trend latterly has been English National Opera, which has presented such titles as Bach’s St John Passion, Handel’s Messiah, Tippett’s A Child of Our Time and Verdi’s Requiem at the London Coliseum. The results have been mixed.
Few choral works really justify the transfer to becoming a staged drama. Yet there have been exceptions, and the new production by Daniel Kramer of Britten’s War Requiem commemorating of the Armistice in November 1918 was one of them.
With Martyn Brabbins in the pit, designs by the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, costumes by Nasir Mazhar, and the complex movement of the substantial forces on stage assigned to choreographer Ann Yee, the result was profoundly moving.
In addition to ENO’s regular forces, the chorus was doubled in size on this occasion to 80, incorporating the sizable group recruited specially for the company’s recent Porgy and Bess, plus for the children’s choir more than 40 members of Finchley Children’s Music Group and eight additional child actors.
These forces represented soldiers and civilians, with no single conflict visualised with historical accuracy: apart from the Great War references were also to the Bosnian War and recent nationalist violence in Poland.
At the centre of the performance were the three principals – all on this occasion British. Soprano Emma Bell’s keenly focused vocalism was equalled by the resilience of tenor David Butt Philip and the ability of baritone Roderick Williams to strike home with every word of the text: together the two men made something unforgettable out of the Wilfred Owen settings which Britten added to his Requiem, giving it a uniquely immediate quality as those mourned in the standard Latin text are allowed to speak directly to us.
Kramer and his design team came up with a succession of striking visual images. With choreographer Yee, he moved forces large and small around to potent effect. Under Brabbins ENO’s orchestra and the expanded choral forces conveyed the commitment and heightened expressivity of the score with distinction.
The War Requiem has meant a great deal to many people – Shostakovich though it the greatest of contemporary works. On this occasion ENO provided not only a worthy musical account of the score but also a visualisation of it that added to rather than detracting from its artistic impact.