Britten: War Requiem
English National Opera
The Coliseum, 16 November 2018
English National Opera has a record of performing Benjamin Britten operas, as well as creating operas from the Bach Passions and other choral works, so it was no surprise that they would turn to Benjamin Britten’s famed War Requiem. As with the Bach Passions, when I first saw them staged, I was a little apprehensive as to what I was to see. Just how would they stage a work with such vastly contrasting moods and scenes, combining the heart-wrenching poems of Wilfred Owen and the words of a traditional Latin Requiem Mass? Britten himself accented this contrast by giving the two male soloists who sing the Owen poems their own chamber orchestra, to be positioned closest to the audience and with its own conductor. The Requiem settings are for a large chorus and orchestra and a soprano soloist, together with boys choir and accompanying organ which are to be situated some distance away from the main orchestras.
At the ENO, the whole was combined into a unified sequence, segueing between the Requiem and the Owen poems, with the vocal soloists usually emerging from the chorus. The separation of the orchestral forces was downplayed, with them all acoustically seeming to come from a single, albeit very wide point, although the boys (in this case, children’s) choir and organ did generally sound distant, but behind, rather than in the otherworldly high position used, for example, at the recent BBC Prom concert (reviewed here). An impression of vast aural width was created by putting the principal timpanist opposite six percussionists in the side boxes. The much-publicised involvement of the distinguished German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans was evident from the start, with the three enormous LED screens displaying varying images, starting with pages from disturbing books of the First World War, showing how to educate children for war – to “teach the boys how to die”. Along with costume designer Nasir Mazhar and choreographer Ann Yee, the often very moving visual images were an important part of the overall impression.
The involvement of the chorus was one of the highlights of the production, the ENO chorus joining with the imported chorus from the just-completed Porgy and Bess run to create one of the biggest gatherings I have seen on an opera stage. Not quite up to the numbers of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall performance, but producing just as much sound. The children’s choir were from Finchley Children’s Music Group, together with a small group of child actors. The two male soloists, tenor David Butt Philip and baritone Roderick Williams were outstanding, vocally and visually, Emma Bell less so, not least straining above the massed chorus that she was often in competition with. Martyn Brabbins conducted with a fine sense of the build-up of drama. Although two organs were specified by Britten, the key one is the small chamber organ (or harmonium) that supports the boys’ choir, the other (the large church or concert hall organ) has a limited role, albeit one that is very impressive when it is included. On this occasion, the chamber organ sounded electronic and rather too quiet.