S&H Staged Concert Review

Verdi: Requiem, Coliseum, ENO, December 2000 (MB)

The ENO's Italian season ended with staged performances of Verdi's great Requiem - purportedly the first time this work has ever been staged. So significant an undertaking as this renders conventional criticism almost meaningless. This is partly because the Requiem is usually performed in either a purely concert or ecclesiastical setting (so ENO's challenging production was nothing if not innovative) but, more importantly, because there is no performance tradition on which to base a staged setting of this masterpiece and on which to base comparative criticism one is left quite hapless by it. One could argue for many thousands of words whether the production had any merit at all, or whether some things may have been over exposed at the expense of others. One could argue about the wisdom of some of the casting - notably a young soprano often overwhelmed (but not always) in the demanding solo part - and a tenor who was often mercurial, but frequently not. What one cannot fault is the dramatic effect this staging had on most of those present.

The Requiem has often been called the greatest opera Verdi never wrote and it is certainly true to argue that its drama and virility lend it more to the concert hall than a church. To set it in an opera house is not as remote a juxtaposition as some have declared it to be. Verdi himself is often described as agnostic - or at the very least had an ambivalent attitude towards religion - and yet, paradoxically, the orchestral and vocal writing often supersedes that of any other setting of the Latin Mass making it, for some, the most spiritual of all choral works.

Phyllida Lloyd's stage production is anything but spiritual. This is one of the greyest, most barren churches one could imagine setting this glorious music in - there are no frescos, no paintings, no decoration whatsoever, just grey-washed walls and, at the start, tiers of wooden seats on which the parishioners sit - often solemn faced. They themselves are dressed entirely in black or grey, the quartet of soloists sat amongst their number. The peace is soon shattered at the beginning of the Dies Irae, a moment which sees cataclysm literally descend on stage as chairs are wildly thrown about or used as shields against the impending wrath. Throughout the entire Sequenza the overwhelming impression is of fear, penitence and wrath as the crowds of a literally terrified chorus are pushed up against walls or thrown like rag-dolls to the floor. This is the nearest Lloyd ever gets to showing us the impending Armageddon of the final day, but it is frequently shattering.

By the time the Offertorio section arrives, a betoken calmness pervades - although there is always the niggling feeling it is fully temporary. Four spots of light fall on the front of the stage and in these are offered the possessions of those present - a samsonite suitcase, a wedding dress, flowers, a football shirt, coins. In the Agnes Dei a heavily pregnant woman emerges from the blackness leading us on to what I assume are the seven stages of man, from birth to old age and death itself. In fact Lloyd chooses a woman as the symbol of this rite, something which perhaps over emphasises the political correctness evident in this production. At the beginning of the Libera me, black clothes are discarded for white ones.

Whilst Lloyd's handling of the group action is always highly controlled, it is in fact Rick Fisher's use of lighting which most astonishes. From the blinding light of the Agnes Dei to the literally terrifying moment at the Libera me's close where the auditorium is plunged into total blackness - and we just hear the sobbing of Claire Weston's isolated voice - light plays a key part in this production. Throughout much of the Sequenza it is the use of shadows - like an image carefully nurtured and multiplied from Murnu's classic 1920's Nosferatu - that captures the imagination. Stefanos Lazaridi's scaffolding goes part of the way towards emphasising the apocalyptic vision of Lloyd's stage design and in the Libera me becomes the focus of attention as the chorus climb it for their final lines. It is the only time in the entire production that we get a vision of a non-apocalyptic church as the chorus take on the guise of a human frieze.

With such an unusual setting for Verdi's Requiem it is almost possible to see the drama of the work and forget almost entirely about the performance itself. Paul Daniel eventually paces this work extremely well - the opening Requiem aeternam being almost as slow as in Victor de Sabata's studio recording of the work - but on the first night the orchestra were not always as together as one might have expected. The chorus performed miraculously well, and what a pleasure to hear a professional chorus for a change. Casting the four leads has always been a problem in this work - and as a quartet they were not ideally suited in timbre or tone. The American bass, David Pittsinger, proved a revelation with deeply focused singing - not least in the notoriously difficult Confutatis. Susan Parry's mezzo was often extremely beautiful. The problems were with both the tenor, the Mexican Rafael Rojas and the soprano, Claire Weston. Rojas has too small a tone for this part, and Weston is simply too young for the demands of the soprano line. She did achieve some miracles - notably a tremendous high B flat at the Libera me's close - but was often drowned by the chorus in the more fortissimo passages. She undoubtedly has a glowing career ahead of her, however.

This was a challenging evening. Hearing a familiar piece in very unfamiliar surroundings is almost always worth the effort, and ENO's staged production of Verdi's Requiem was a worthy end to their Italian season.

Marc Bridle

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