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War Requiem

by on 17 November 2018

Half the Seed of EuropeWW1 IWM logo

War Requiem

by Benjamin Britten

English National Opera, London Coliseum until 7th December

Review by Mark Aspen

Last summer, when staying a few days in Alsace, that most Germanic part of France, I visited the Musée Unterlinden in Colmar. Although it was quite quiet in the museum, there was, as always, a small crowd around its crowning glory, Mathis Grünewald’s moving masterpiece, the Isenheim Altar. Benjamin Britten suggested this as an illustration of his War Requiem at its first performance at the consecration of the re-built Coventry Cathedral, destroyed early in the Second World War. Four and a half centuries separate their creation, but what they have in common is sacrifice. Britten’s 1962 monumental work speaks of the sacrifice, in the First World War, of “half the seed of Europe”; whereas the sacrifice of Christ for the sins of all mankind is the subject of Grünewald’s vivid depiction of suffering in his 1512 altarpiece, with Christ’s body on the Cross twisted in agony.

Britten is a composer greatly associated with the English National Opera, so it is fitting that the first fully-staged UK performance of his War Requiem should be presented by ENO, a company acclaimed for staging oratorio and similar works, most notably Deborah Warner’s Messiah nearly a decade ago. The scale is similar, the incomparable ENO chorus being augmented by the contrasting style of the ensemble from ENO’s recent Porgy and Bess and further complemented by forty members of the Finchley Children’s Music Group. Equally a chamber orchestra extends the full force of ENO’s orchestra.


A self-proclaimed pacifist, Britten absconded to the United States just before the beginning of the Second World War, as an “artistic ambassador”, only returning towards the end of hostilities to apply for exemption from military services as a conscientious objector. Consequently, some found it distasteful that he should write a requiem for the war dead; however, his requiem is cast wider to encompass all who suffer in war. The larger part of the requiem is given over to grief formal and anguish informal of non-combatants, represented by one soprano soloist, but with the full weight of the choruses. The emphasis is not on the glory of war, but on the pity of war.


The universality of total war (a term coined by General Ludendorff in his First World War memoires) is embodied in War Requiem by the juxtaposition of two disparate texts, the Latin Missa pro Defunctis (Mass for the Dead) with Wilfred Owen’s war poetry. The Missa reflects on the spiritual and emotional losses in war, against Owen’s articulations of the physical and psychological damage. The human level of the war poetry is expressed by two men soloists, accompanied largely by the chamber orchestra. This contrasts with the mass, in all senses, of the Missa where the monumental momentum of the chorus, ensemble and full orchestra, accentuated by the soprano solo, proclaims an overawing magnificence. Yet there is an estranged ethereal presence of the voices of the children singers, with their own suppliant musical accompaniment. Hence War Requiem runs on three levels concurrently, as it contrasts the sublime with the horrific.

Horror is the starting theme for the stage set, which features huge photographs from the post-First World War shock-tactic album of conscientious objector Ernst Friedrich’s Krieg dem Krieges, including inter alia pictures of the badly mutilated faces of injured soldiers. However, one is left wondering whether the images of naked torn bodies of the battlefield to illustrate the opening chorous, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine”, disrespectfully disturbs eternal rest that the Lord is asked to grant.


The designer, German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, is one of today’s best-known artists in the photographic field, having the distinction of being both the first foreign winner of the Turner Prize, and the first photographer to do so. War Requiem is his debut in operatic design. He has eschewed a three-dimensional set, to a photographic design, which indeed plays to his strengths by creating an installation. Enhanced by Charles Balfour’s lighting, the diverse images used include riots, Coventry Cathedral, mosses, wind-torn tree limbs and slaughtered sheep. Eventually however, they becoming increasingly lyrical with brilliant flowers, awe-inspiring cloudscapes and snow. They are projected onto the cyclorama, or interspersed flats, or in one case across the whole front of the auditorium, filling the theatre with purple light and bold images of blue pulsatilla anemones. A fly-drop of concrete rubble transmogrifies from an inverted mushroom-cloud into a beautiful falling snowscape, but the one nod to a three-dimensional set is baffling, something resembling a gigantic ginger root that the children climb over.


How do you go about staging an oratorio? This is the controversial question that the director, ENO’s own Daniel Kramer, seeks to again answer in this production. There is a need for balance in trying to enhance the work rather than distract from it. Tillmans’ grand images are magnificent, and the disturbing ones harrowing, but there is a danger that these do sometimes steer away from what the music is trying to say.

Much of the visual imagery is created by the swirling crowds of humanity on stage. The three choruses are there most of the time and are supplemented by eight child actors from the Sylvia Young Theatre School. They are constantly in motion, always abject, sombre, cowed. Sometimes the movements are militaristic, sometimes like prisoners, sometimes like mourners. All the costumes are variants of muted grey-blues. In one vignette, the circling lines of bodies are reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s 1890 painting, Prisoners Exercising, although often the tableaux seem removed from the words. Ann Yee’s chorography is exemplary in keeping all the fluency in the movement. There are poignant episodes. In the Offertorium, Owen inverts the episode in Genesis when Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, in that no angel comes to substitute the ram: “ but the old man would not so, but slew his son, – and half the seed of Europe, one by one”.


Britten’s music underlines the ironies of the often contradictory nature of the conflicting words of Owen’s war poetry and the Missa, with sudden turns from the soaringly lyrical to the edgily dissonant. The score makes a wide use of tritone, the interval that early music theorists called Diabolous in Musica, the devil in the music, to jar the listener and to point up the themes of conflict versus resolution, or reality versus glorification. Conductor, Martyn Brabbins specialises in twentieth century music and it shows in his magnificent interpretation of the power and intricacies of War Requiem and the control and co-ordination of his varied array of musicians and singers.


Emma Bell brings a strong and expressive voice to the soprano solo, a soul lost in the sea of humanity, hair shock stiff. Is she a grieving mother, a protective matron or an angel of death? All are amalgamated in her words and body language. Her “lacrimosa dies illa” (this day full of tears) has beauty, pathos and richness. The two men soloists are the combatants, the tenor one of “our boys”, the baritone, the enemy soldier, although the distinction blurs as the piece goes on. David Butt Philip, the tenor, brings full-on power to a soaring expression of the sentiment of the piece. Award-winning baritone, Roderick Williams’ rich and gentle approach is full of empathy and pathos. In the resolving moment of the requiem, the two are together. As the tenor sings “It seems that out of battle I escaped”, we realise it is in death that opposing soldiers meet with honour. “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”, the baritone replies in recognition, in a moment of heart-wrenching anguish.


There is a quote in the Agnus Dei from Owen’s At a Calvary near the Ancre, in which soldiers pass at a crossroads a damaged monument to the crucified Christ, and there is a recognition their hearts. The poem is dense with symbolism, which was not picked up in Kramer’s symbol-laden War Requiem, but it piercingly summarises the message of the piece as a whole, “But they who love the greater love lay down their life; they do not hate”.

Let us not pass by.

Mark Aspen
November 2018

Photography by Richard Hubert Smith

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