Britten’s War Requiem finds new life with ENO’s staging

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

KH

 

 

‘Marnie’ at English National Opera

The plot of ‘Marnie’ has all the prime ingredients for dramatic classic opera: childhood secrets, multiple identities, unspoken feelings, disturbing relationships, kleptomania, lust, sex, treachery, betrayal and subterfuge. In creating his brand new opera for ENO and the Met in New York, American composer Nico Muhly turned not to the “insane sadism” of Alfred Hitchcock’s film (and his disturbing obsession with Tippi Hidren who starred as his eponymous heroine), but to the novel by Winston Graham, author of the ‘Poldark’ series, on which Nicholas Wright based the libretto. Comparisons will inevitably be made with the film and the novel, but I deliberately avoided seeing the film ahead of the premiere and have not read the book. Muhly brings the action back to England (as in the book) and the first act opens in a drab 1950s office in Birmingham before moving to Barnet and Beaconsfield.

One of the key themes explored in the opera is the control and objectification of women via the lustful male gaze. This of course is up-to-the-minute topical and lends an additional frisson to the drama. Throughout Marnie is being watched, tracked and objectified – from her first meeting with Mark Rutland to the queasily flirtatious encounter with his brother Terry (brilliantly sung by counter-tenor James Laing, whose voice is by turns wheedling and shrill). To emphasise this further, she is stalked by a group of sinister men in grey suits and homburg hats, who step in and out of the shadowy corners of Marnie’s conscious and the set, providing a constant masculine antagonism (both physical and metaphorical), and whose writhing dancing also serves to inform the narrative.

It is the psychology of Marnie herself on which the plot hinges and music is the means by which her secrets are unlocked. Instruments at their highest and lowest registers (specifically a solo oboe) become the mouthpieces for her when she is under the most extreme pressure. In the same way, each instrument is paired with a character in order to express his or her unspoken feelings. In a narrative where people are continually lying, the orchestra, by contrast, never lies: Mark Rutland’s lust is expressed by the trombone, while Terry’s loucheness is portrayed by a sleazy sinewy trumpet motif. Thus sound is used to convey powerful emotions in a way the text or action don’t always inform us: trembling slicing strings, frenetic percussion, shrill yet haunting woodwind, together with urgent agitato rhythms or long layers of sound and spooling melodies. The splendid ENO chorus is also used to great effect, acting at times like a Greek chorus to comment on the action, taunting Marnie or revealing her inner thoughts. Her psyche is further expressed through four Marnie-clones, whose vividly-coloured costumes vibrate against the drab set. These “Shadow Marnies”, as Muhly calls them, are particular effective in the psychiatric analysis scene in Act II where they interchange with one another and Marnie herself, suggesting her confused mindset as she confronts her complex emotional landscape and troubled past.

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Sasha Cooke as Marnie (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Sasha Cooke as Marnie is marvellous, her mezzo voice resonant and expressive (and brilliantly sustained throughout as she barely leaves the stage during the entire opera), and her interactions with Mark Rutland, sensitively played by David Okulitch, who succeeds in appearing both sexually predatory and vulnerable (and as a consequence one of the more sympathetic characters in a cast of generally unlikeable people) are edgy and compelling in their portrayal of this couple’s difficult relationship. Lesley Garrett makes a wonderful cameo appearance as Mrs Rutland, the manipulative matriarch.

The costumes, designed by Arianne Phillips, are fabulous – deeply evocative of the era (late 1950s) and a hommage to the Hitchcock film too. Martyn Brabbins, in his first appearance as the new director of music of ENO, conducts with subtle sensitivity, while the spare set and staging allows characters and music to come to the fore with tautly-paced drama (at times almost unbearably tense, particularly in the first act) and moments of deeply disquieting dramatic irony. The only longueur for me was the fox hunting scene (used in the narrative as a metaphor for Marnie’s constant flight from her past and her persecutors). Not easy to stage, it was cleverly organised with a projection of galloping hooves, but it was not entirely convincing and was rather too drawn out.

Overall, a compelling and enigmatic psycho-thriller.


‘Marnie’ continues in repertory at English National Opera

 

FW

‘Partenope’ at English National Opera

English National Opera’s 2016/17 season closes with a welcome revival of Christopher Alden’s Olivier Award-winning 2008 production of George Frederick Handel’s Partenope, first staged in 1730.

The plot, daft even by Baroque comic opera standards, revolves around the mythical Partelope, Queen of Naples, and her multiple suitors. Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto, awash with cross-dressing, braggadocio and sexual intrigue, is agreeably frivolous fare.

Alden has transferred the setting to a 1920s weekend house party, where Partenope is the Nancy Cunard-style hostess and the ultimate peril facing the assembled Bohemians is getting stuck in the downstairs lavatory. A Surrealist touch is added by modelling one of the suitors, Emilio, on photographer Man Ray. Jon Morrell’s costumes and Andrew Lieberman’s Art Deco sets are evocative, and Amanda Holden’s peppy translation suits the louche atmosphere well.

ENO Partenope Sarah Tynan, James Laing and Patricia Bardon (c) Donald Cooper-L

Soprano Sarah Tynan, all marcelled chic and crisp delivery, excels in her role debut as Partenope. Outstanding, too, is the rich mezzo of Patricia Bardon, in the primo uomo part of Arsace. Countertenor James Laing is engaging as silly ass Armindo, and there’s strong support from Stephanie Windsor Lewis (as Arsace’s jilted lover Rosmira) and Matthew Durkan (as the foppish Ormonte). Rupert Charlesworth, replacing Robert Murray at short notice, contributes a turbo-charged performance as the interloping Emilio. Noted Handelian Christian Curnyn, who also conducted the original production, marshals the ENO orchestra with brio.

ENO Partenope Rupert Charlesworth and Sarah Tynan (4) (c) Donald Cooper-XL

It’s been bruited in some quarters that Partenope is subpar Handel, belonging at the back of the repertoire. That’s nonsense: it fairly bursts at the seams with unalloyed da capo bliss. (If you doubt me, sample Riccardo Minasi’s excellent 2015 recording, which at the time of writing was available here).

Partenope continues the Coliseum’s glorious series of Handel revivals, launched almost 30 years ago by Nicholas Hynter’s near-legendary production of Xerxes. ENO should now dust off Agrippina, Rodelinda, Ariodante, Alicina and Semele – the lot. If the payoff is a run of semi-staged adaptations of ‘Carousel’ with Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe, then I, for one, say: bring it on!

NM

Partenope at ENO to 24th March 2017

All photographs: Donald Cooper

An opera for our troubled times: ‘The Winter’s Tale’ at ENO

How to turn one of Shakespeare’s late “problem plays” into an opera? It’s something which has preoccupied conductor and composer Ryan Wigglesworth since his student days. Now 37, his ruminations have come to fruition in this commission for English National opera (ENO) and in The Winter’s Tale, he has produced an opera for our troubled times – tense, unsettling and eloquently-scored.

Wigglesworth admits that while he’s never seen a convincing stage version of The Winter’s Tale, the material is ripe for operatic adaptation, not only its powerful central theme – a king looking back repentantly over his past – but also the set pieces of dramatic crisis: the trial, the storm, the passing of the years. In Wigglesworth’s version, plot and text are stripped right back – an adaptation into another art form almost begs a radical appraisal of what is essential to the narrative – and Wigglesworth’s concision means one never feels overloaded with music. In fact, one of the most striking features of this opera, amongst many others, is the way text and music dovetail to create a condensed dramatic whole which vibrates with intensity. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter does not lend itself easily to song (it’s too long to be sung intelligibly), so Wigglesworth, who also wrote the libretto, has created a text which has a keen sense of the poetry of Shakespeare, artful but never simplistic, set to music which is mercurial, lyrical and deeply atmospheric with its tender washes of strings, haunting clarinet lines, anxious flutter-tongued flute, portentous growling basses and trombones, and edgy xylophone and snare drum to match Leontes’ agitation and suspicion about his queen. A Britten-like melancholy and tautness suffuses the score.

It is the “fake news” in Leontes’ head which drives the narrative in the first act. He suspects his wife Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes, King of Bohemia, but unlike Othello, who is convinced by Iago’s weasel words, Leontes believes his own propaganda and every touch, every incline of the head between Hermione and Polixenes feeds his fears. Baritone Iain Paterson portrays a King of Sicilia who is both powerful yet vulnerable. At times his voice almost creaks with emotion, his broad-shoulders clad in a boxy uniform seem poised on the cusp of collapse. In the opening sequence he parades and preens, self-admiring and proud, his body language redolent of a more contemporary leader who favours over-sized suits and self-aggrandisement….. The contrast between this and the broken, repentant man we meet in Act 3 is stark and poignantly drawn.

His queen Hermione, elegantly sung by Sophie Bevan, is gently flirtatious but never openly coquettish with Polixenes. When she begs him to stay in Sicilia, it is the pleading of a friend not a lover. Polixenes, sharply sung by Leigh Melrose, takes heed of servant Camillo’s advice and flees Sicilia before the trial.

The trial is the dramatic heart of Act 1 and is the first opportunity for the ENO’s fine chorus to come to the fore as the crowd who act like a Greek chorus, chanting their support for Hermione and calling upon the god Apollo. The revolving, circular set is used to great dramatic effect here, cleaving into jagged parts which then form a seascape for baby Perdita’s storm-tossed journey to Bohemia. In Act 3 the fractured walls reflect the King’s emotional scars.

The action moves forward apace in Act 1, yet the claustrophobic intensity of the narrative, the spare language and unsettling, haunting scoring create a sense of time elongated.

Act 2 opens in sunny Bohemia, a place of honey-stoned buildings and cheerful pavement cafés. This is where Perdita, Leontes’ daughter, has made her home, adopted by a kindly shepherd and in love with Florizel, son of Polixenes. But suspicious stalks the streets here too: camouflaged soldiers prod and provoke the crowd, and Polixenes appears in battle fatigues and dark glasses, like the military dictator of a South American republic. The joyful, folksy celebration of Perdita and Florizel’s love cannot last long and the couple are forced to flee to Sicilia, pursued by Polixenes.

The final Act, the scene of recognition and reconciliation between Leontes and his daughter ends not with a neat tying up of ends as one normally finds in theatrical productions of this play. A sense of ambiguity, of incompleteness pervades, and Leontes’ final soliloquy “Stars, stars, all eyes else dead coals!” is a moment of raw emotion.

Acclaimed actor Rory Kinnear, who makes his directorial debut, has set the narrative in a modern-day military state, replete with oversized state statues, sharply fitted uniforms heavy with medals and gold-frogging, and fearful obsequious servants – excepting the queen’s stalwart supporter Paulina, magnificently sung by Susan Bickley. The set’s concentric circular walls work well in informing and moving forward the narrative and create a sense of “us looking in on them”, as almost voyeuristic observers of the action.

There may be trouble at the top at ENO, but down on the stage great things are happening and this production of The Winter’s Tale further confirms that.

Recommended.

FW

The Winter’s Tale continues in repertory at ENO/London Coliseum until 14 March 2017

(Photo: Sophie Bevan, Zach Roberts and Iain Paterson in ENO’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’. Picture by Johan Persson)