Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem from Barcelona

War Requiem, Op.66

Tatiana Pavlovskaya (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor) & Matthias Goerne (baritone)

Chorus of the Liceu Opera Barcelona
Children’s choir VEUS – Amics de la Unió de Granollers

Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu
Josep Pons

Daniel Kramer – Stage director
Wolfgang Tillmans – Set design & Video artist

Reviewed by: Guy Holloway

Reviewed: 27 October, 2021
Venue: Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona

This run of performances in Barcelona boasts an exciting trio of soloists which, as Britten intended, represent the warring nations of Russia, Britain and Germany, including Matthias Goerne (who can trace his pedigree in this work back to his teacher Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau).

In a 1968 television interview with CBC, Britten asserted: “I’d rather have my music used, than write masterpieces that were not used.” But I wonder what Britten would have made of this fusion of music, video projection, and on-stage enactments of scenes. There is no denying the sincerity of Daniel Kramer’s vision, which was conceived shortly after he took over the artistic directorship of English National Opera in 2016 – a time which coincided with the June 23rd Brexit vote. Kramer has been open about his intention to create a work which spoke to “the politics of Brexit” because, for Kramer, “nationalism at its core leads to violence”. Here, reviving the 2018 ENO production, Kramer has worked again with the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans to create an ostensibly startling music-drama, complete with corpses, falling snow, and various projections of Coventry Cathedral (the engraved ‘Father Forgive’ was unexpectedly touching, projected as it was at the beginning of the Agnus Dei). Other projected images referenced football hooliganism and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Images of war and conflict were interspersed with evocative vignettes from nature. But over the course of the ninety minutes, the images were increasingly a distraction. Further, some scene-changes entailed cumbersome breaks in the flow of the work. The curtain came down on either side of the Offertorium whilst the sound of changes was covered by improvised orchestral and percussive tinkling.

The staging of choral works will always divide opinion, but on occasion there will be opportunities to explore a work in a way that a concert performance cannot. And, indeed, there were moments where this was the case. Seeing Mark Padmore stumble across a battlefield, as Tatiana Pavlovskaya cradled a dead solder, was oddly effective. And here Padmore’s ‘Move him into the sun’ was a lesson in humility and connectedness to the text, with every syllable clear.

Also effective was the puppet-like marching of Padmore and Goerne to the rollicking music-hall number ‘We’ve walked quite friendly up to death’, which hit just the right note of grotesque irony. But these staged moments of illumination were very much the exception. The separate strands of Britten’s vision – the soprano with full orchestra, the two men with chamber orchestra – were here rather muddled, with everyone seemingly together in one psychodrama.  The children (boys and girls) were on the stage, very much part of the action, and thus one lost one of War Requiem‘s defining features – the ethereal boys that Britten wanted.

The big disappointment of the evening was the chorus, which was disappointingly low in energy, and in its grasp and enunciation of the Latin text, which was mostly indecipherable. The staging meant the chorus was doing a lot of generalised milling around, often whilst singing. Key moments, such as the opening ‘Requiem aeternam’ and the ‘Dies irae’ were rhythmically nebulous and underwhelming. It did not help that all chorus members (and the children) wore masks, so it’s not perhaps surprising that the words were unintelligible. Too often the Chorus was not quite on the beat, and appeared disconnected from the meaning of what they were singing. One understands the constraints of Covid, but we can’t pretend that singing with masks works. No wonder the complex choral layering was just a blur.

Josep Pons had placed the chamber players in a U-shape around his podium. There was plenty of fine individual playing, but perhaps Pons’s focus could have been more directly on the main orchestra, although immediacy was lacking. Where was the lilt, the swagger, and indeed the dynamic range?  Even the brass seemed polite in the ‘Dies irae’. I yearned for lines to be shaped, for more dynamic contrast, and for more rhythmic vitality. Again and again, much was glossed over.

Whatever reservations there were, the emotional culmination of the work nevertheless remained intact. The setting of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting (‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’) brought Padmore and Goerne together in heart-stopping beauty and tenderness. As the English and German soldiers who are now reconciled, albeit in Hell (Britten’s trademark subversive nature always at play), both singers brought a simplicity, a gentleness, an openness that was achingly poignant. But this was also the one moment in the evening where the set was not busy with projections. The music was allowed to speak for itself.

Tatiana Pavlovskaya, caught somewhere between Vishnevskaya’s imperious articulation, and Elisabeth Söderström’s gentler, more human exposition of the role, found herself metaphorically and literally at times in no-man’s-land – a fault of the production. But she was vocally effective throughout, notably in the Lacrimosa, where she was utterly secure, if not quite tear-inducing, in intonation above the stave.

Further performances: 29, 31 October & 2 November

Skip to content