OPERA NEWS - War Requiem
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In Review > International

War Requiem

English National Opera

In Review ENO War Requiem hdl 219
The War Requiem at ENO, with soloist David Butt Philip
© Richard Hubert Smith

ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA'S stagings of oratorios and other major choral works—among them Bach’s Saint John Passion, Handel’s Messiah, Tippett’s Child of Our Time and Verdi’s Requiem—have been distinctly mixed; few of these productions demonstrated that staging a Passion or an oratorio provides a fully satisfying dramatic experience. But ENO’s new staging of Britten’s War Requiem (seen Nov. 7)—timed to coincide with the centennial commemoration of the Armistice that brought World War I to an end—is an exception to the rule. The production by Daniel Kramer, ENO’s artistic director, was a visualization of Britten’s masterpiece that added to its artistic and musical impact. The War Requiem was conducted by ENO music director Martyn Brabbins, a specialist in twentieth-century British music, and featured costumes by fashion designer Nasir Mazhar and settings by German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. The complex movement of the substantial forces onstage was the work of choreographer Ann Yee, a long-time Kramer collaborator.

For this production, the ENO chorus was doubled in size to eighty singers, incorporating the sizable group recruited specially for the company’s recent Porgy and Bess. The show also employed more than forty members of Finchley Children’s Music Group (associated with Britten’s music since its foundation in 1958) and eight additional child actors. These forces were used to represent soldiers and civilians, with no single conflict visualized with historical accuracy: there were references not only to the Great War but to the Bosnian War and recent nationalist violence in Poland. 

Britten had envisioned principals from Britain, Germany and Russia for the world premiere of the War Requiem in 1962, but when Soviet authorities refused soprano Galina Vishnevskaya permission to travel to the U.K., her place at the first performance was taken by Northern Irish soprano Heather Harper, joining Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Peter Pears. The principals for ENO’s present performance—Emma Bell, David Butt Philip and Roderick Williams—were all British. Bell’s powerful soprano was matched by the proud tenor of Butt Philip and the eloquent baritone of Williams. Butt Philip and Williams were especially involving as the combatants who sing Britten’s settings of poems by English poet Wilfred Owen (1893–1918), killed in action in France shortly before the Armistice was declared. Kramer’s staging offered an unending sequence of striking images, and Yee’s invariably skillful choreography moved forces large and small around on London’s most sizable stage to potent effect against a variety of visual backdrops emphasizing—as in the Owen quotation Britten appended to his score—“War, and the pity of war.” 

The commitment and heightened expressivity of the score was conveyed with unerring accomplishment and distinction under Brabbins, with ENO’s orchestra and the expanded choral forces in impeccable form. The result was a worthy musical account of a work that meant a good deal to the lifelong pacifist composer. —George Hall

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