THE staging of choral works in the capital goes back at least to Sir Jonathan Miller’s production of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, in the 1990s. The English National Opera’s decision to stage Britten’s War Requiem to mark the Armistice was a daring one.
The ENO has had other dramatised explorations of sacred cantatas, although Deborah Warner’s modern attempt at Bach’s St John Passion, despite wonderful playing under Stephen Layton, struck many as dramatically a bit thin.
The Lacrimosa in the War Requiem was written for, but, for tiresome political reasons, not first performed by, the Soviet soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. It was sung here opulently, together with the Sanctus and Libera Me, by Emma Bell. But Britten also incorporated bitterly savage anti-war poems by Wilfred Owen, whose violent dramatic impact does indeed suggest a visual treatment.
It is evident in the tenor soloist’s opening “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”, in “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” (a deliberate travesty of the Abraham and Isaac narrative, exposing the gap between the generations), and, above all, in the final “Strange Meeting”, where a British and German soldier meet in some eerie afterlife. Britten the opera genius easily merits here some form of visual expression.
ENO’s staging, by the company’s latest top brass, the artistic director, Daniel Kramer, and music director, Martyn Brabbins, proved the point, and struck all the right notes. At no point did the production detract or obscure.
Having Roderick Williams, whose stage moves, faces and postures seem to need scarcely any direction (though he could sometimes use a bit more), as the baritone (a German: Britten wrote the role for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), was a huge asset. Williams is one of the most expressive singers and absorbing presences in British music today. The tenor David Butt Philip matched him at almost every turn. James Henshaw’s ENO chorus served up a scintillating reading of Britten’s demanding big choir passages. Kramer’s direction was apt.
Coventry Cathedral — where Fischer-Dieskau sang in the 1962 premiere — had hosted a week earlier a concert performance of staggering power and authority. The Coventry Cathedral Chorus (formerly St Michael’s Singers), aided by the Brighton Festival Chorus, was directed by Paul Leddington Wright, with astute insight and firm command. His pacing and timings, followed to the letter by members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, were hugely beneficial to the overall effect.
Coventry Cathedral Choir, both boys and girls — upon both of whom Kerry Beaumont has lavished love and care with dazzling results — matched their elders at every turn: they mastered Britten’s awkward and poignant diminished fifths like seasoned professionals.
The chamber orchestra was conducted by Simon Over, a former Coventry Cathedral organ scholar, who revealed a profoundly advantageous understanding of how best to respond to Sir Basil Spence’s acoustic design of the new cathedral.
Over’s compact ensemble accompanied the poetic solos and duets (including the nicely articulate baritone Lawrence White), deliberately thinly scored by Britten, with brilliance and precision, most obvious in subtle instrumental solos and tiny ensembles (searing, then plaintive, woodwind; or refined, restrained, brass). Over’s percipient balancing yielded spikiness (where specified), and a beautifully modulated lulling underlay to his two soloists, never once overbearing either.
Emma Bell’s counterpart, equally sublime, was Ilona Domnich. The hero of the entire Coventry Cathedral performance evening, aptly part of Coventry’s 2018 Peace Festival, was the tenor Gwilym Bowen, in the role pioneered by Peter Pears. Bowen could really bellow out Owen’s texts where necessary. But was there ever a more sensitive performance of “Move him into the sun”? I doubt it.