At the Coliseum to watch the first UK staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem on its opening night, I was curious to see how Turner prize-winning photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans would tackle this work as set designer.
War Requiem’s reputation has soared since 1962, when it was first performed in Coventry Cathedral. As a choral work, it now enjoys the same popularity as Handel’s Messiah.
The horrors of war remain a compelling theme with modern audiences and Tillmans, who is German and a pacifist, leapt at the idea of staging Britten’s work. It is one thing however to be an edgy artist such as Tillmans, and to stage an opera (plenty do), but War Requiem is hard to define, it is a hybrid choral work drawing its text both from church liturgy, the Mass of the Dead, and Wilfred Owen’s war poems.
So what does ‘staging’ really entail? Isn’t there enough movement and richness in the text and musical score for us to conjure for ourselves the full terror of death and war? The male solo parts are so achingly beautiful and poignant. And if the libretto wasn’t enough, ENO has enlisted 120 singers in the chorus, 3 top soloists and an 85-strong orchestra to hammer the message home. And yet I do understand ENO’s wish to bring another dimension to the work.
I had watched a 1964 black and white BBC film of War Requiem on YouTube. Presented by Richard Baker in clipped British tones at the Albert Hall, it brought back to me how stiff a concert performance could be. The soloists, choirs, musicians all in their appointed place on stage; singers standing to attention when it was their turn perform. I also watched a more recent Festival Hall production, which felt more fluid, less regal and stiff.
ENO’s War Requiem gets off to a terrific start in the opening movement. The pages of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 anti-war book, entitled ‘War against War’ are projected onto two LED screens with the chorus in darkness behind them. The children’s choir starts up – and at the same moment, illustrations of tin soldiers and toy guns appear, the equivalent of today’s computer war games. David Kramer, Artistic Director, dramatises this point later on in Offertorium, when the soprano, the wonderful Emma Bell, is seen leading a young boy to a grave. A funeral is taking place. He breaks away from his mother angrily to play on his iPad, which he inevitably bashes with his little fist.
But back to the opening. The screen slowly parts and little by little the chorus come through to centre stage singing ‘perpetual light shine upon them’ while the audience is presented with photographs of dull-eyed soldiers with monstrous facial disfigurements – a soldier with a badly grafted nose, another with a gaping hole where his mouth should be. But then the projections cease, the chorus plays dead, and the tenor, David Butt Philip, starts singing Owen’s words taken from ‘Anthem for doomed Youth’. Here the poetry does the talking and we are able to fully focus on his extraordinary expressive voice. David Butt Philip was the star of the night for me.
And this is what Tillmans meant in a recent Times interview. He was keen ‘to leave room for the sung word’. For almost a third of the time, Tillmans sensibly chooses to have a blank stage, most notably in the middle section of the last movement, Libera Me, when the ghosts of a British and German officer meet. ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’, sings Roderick Williams in his gentle baritone.
Although Tillmans is careful not to intrude on our musical pleasure, at times his imagery feels arbitrary, like Tillmans’s photographs of battling football hooligans which although powerful images in themselves, bring nothing new to the equation.
Tillmans is more effective when he focuses his canny photographer’s eye on nature. Branches split in two in the style of Paul Nash, or a giant white chrysanthemum, which might represent a mushroom bomb or be a symbol of regeneration.
I loved the final scene: a lofty, open window suffused with bright green light with a tree filling its frame. Stage lighting moves the audience’s eye to a grave on the stage. The change in emphasis charters the changing mood of Britten’s musical finale.
Equally impressive was the calibre of the ENO chorus. Not only was their sound rich and nuanced but the cast moved and lay down well creating the most ghostly of tableaux. One particular picture sticks in the mind; their piled up bodies in the Srebrenica scene. A flyer commemorating the 1995 massacre is projected on a panel. Or in Libera Me, lying down in the snow. Beautifully lit, they brought to mind the painting ‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent.
Less well achieved was the Abraham parable section. Too many cast members swirling around on stage. The dramatic moment of Abraham raising a knife to his son is somehow lost in the crowding. There seemed to be timing issues at this point between the singers and orchestra but this is the only time I felt things might have been a little out of synch in an otherwise fluid staging.
Despite this very minor quibble, I left the Coliseum feeling that the bar had been greatly raised in this staging of War Requiem and that the work had received a new lease of life thanks to inspired direction and stage design.
So does this mean the end of plain old concerts? I doubt it. Certainly I applaud ENO for presenting a musical work in a new light, but equally I believe audiences should be given space to ponder the music. Imagination is a dwindling commodity in this world where everything needs to be explained. It will be a sad day when it becomes redundant.
War Requiem has a further 5 performances on 22nd, 27th, 29th November and 4th and 7th December at 7.30pm.
English National Opera