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Inter oves locum praesta

12/09/2000 -  d 11, 14, 16 December
Giuseppe Verdi: Requiem
Claire Weston (soprano), Susan Parry (mezzo-soprano), Rafael Rojas (tenor), David Pittsinger (bass)
ENO Orchestra and Chorus
Paul Daniel (conductor), Phyllida Lloyd (director)

Verdi’s Requiem is often described as an opera manqué: it has recognisably Verdian ensembles, and the soloists, particularly the soprano in the closing Libera me, seem to express more personal feelings that usual in a liturgical work. But it has apparently never been staged before, and staging it is a very strange thing to do.

It is true that the Requiem mass includes part of the mass, normally the Agnus Dei and Sanctus, and that the mass is inherently not only dramatic but also theatrical. It both represents a crucial action, the last supper before Christ’s arrest, trial and crucifixion, and also explicitly marks the act of representation with the words "this is my body...this is my blood". What is represented in the mass can be anything from a communal breaking of break to a ritual murder, depending on your doctrinal and cultural assumptions.

In contrast, the Requiem generally excludes the consecration and often the communion. The focus is not a visible gesture but a hard fact, the death of an individual. Even when the dead person’s body is not present at the Requiem, or when it is said in memory of many people, the central fact of death is never a symbol open to multiple interpretation. The ritual is for marking and dealing with the fact, not an abstract expression of community. So a theatrical performance of a Requiem is by definition missing an external context in a way that a non-liturgical performance of the mass, and of course of the Passion narrative or a Greek tragedy, is not. In addition, Verdi meant his Requiem to mark the death of Italian culture, embodied in the death of the writer Alessandro Manzoni. This makes it even more abstract and even more a work of "pure" music.

So Phyllida Lloyd’s task of staging the Verdi Requiem as the conclusion of the ENO’s Italian season was much more difficult than Deborah Warner’s was in staging the St John Passion earlier in the year. She approached the task by having the performers (the principals, the ENO chorus, a selection of actors and a group of children) act out the themes and emotional associations of the sections of the work, with some attention to the detail of the text but more to the shape and feeling of the music. There was no explicit reference on stage to death or a dead individual, and much of what went on had the feel of a student workshop on grief and fear, but it often worked in an underwraught kind of way.

At the start, the chorus entered and sat, dressed in shades of black, in a serious but casual gathering that might be a courtroom, foreshadowing the judgment in the Dies Irae, or a religious meeting. They sang the Requiem and Kyrie, both measured and rather subdued movements, seated, but were dramatically scattered by the cataclysms of the Dies Irae, accompanied at times by a fierce white light. They regrouped standing, for the Offertorium, and a subgroup brought forward what looked like personal items -- the tenor put down his spectacles -- during the Hostias verse. Some of the terror and awe was directed into the space above the stalls, but there was no sense of who or what the offerings were for. During the Sanctus, the children, brightly dressed, picked up the offerings and played with them among the chorus. The Agnus Dei involved the seven ages of woman, from the womb to old age, and was quite moving. The principals and then the chorus lit candles during the Lux Aeterna, then took of some of their black garments and climbed the scaffolding at the sides of the stage during the Libera me, leaving the soprano, after an attempt to join them, alone on the stage and operatically demented. As the music and lights faded she tried and failed to light one of the candles.

The orchestra (heard in the performance on 11 December) played the music more or less as if it were opera, and totally engagingly. Paul Daniel looked extremely tired when he came on to take his bow with the singers. The chorus, who had memorised everything, were impressively engaged and committed. Of the soloists, only the mezzo Susan Parry, in the Dies Irae, and the soprano Claire Weston in the Libera me had anything substantive theatrically to do. Parry didn’t have too much -- she looked in a compact mirror in apparent denial of mortality at one point in the Dies Irae -- and sang serenely, carrying amazingly effectively from within the ensembles in a low register. Weston has the makings of a big impressive voice, but had a few rough edges in an intense and integrated performance. She was clearly giving everything at the end. The tenor and bass really only had to stand and deliver. The tenor Rafael Rojas was solid but undistinguished, and the bass David Pittsinger gave what would have been pretty striking as a concert performance, though without much character. Both of them were making their Coliseum debuts.

H.E. Elsom



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