Acts of Mutilation
ENO, War Requiem, music by Benjamin Britten, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, soloists soprano Emma Bell, baritone Roderick Williams, tenor David Butt Philip, text from the Missa pro Defunctis and the poems of Wilfred Owen, 16thNovember 2018, directed by Daniel Kramer, designs by Wolfgang Tillmans, reviewed by Leslie Jones
Is the War Requiem an oratorio or an opera? In an earlier, powerful performance of this work at the Albert Hall, on the 10th November 2013, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, acting, costumes, sets etc, were dispensed with (see Quarterly Review, November 17th 2013). They would only have distracted the audience, which was allowed to concentrate on Britten’s music and Owen’s poetry, which speak for themselves.
But Daniel Kramer, the director of ENO’s new production of War Requiem, ignores the distinction between opera and oratorio. At the outset, we were presented with giant book covers onto which were projected pages from Ernst Friedrich’s pacifist tract Krieg dem Kriege (War Against War, 1924 and 1926), replete with disturbing pictures of mutilated soldiers etc. During the Dies Irae, likewise, when the soprano warns that “Nil inultum remanebit” (“Nothing will remain unavenged”), there were “relevant” references to “gender and genocide” in Srebrenica in 1992.
The assumption seemed to be that the average audience has a low attention span, that it lacks imagination. Why, otherwise, the constant frenzied and at times incomprehensible activity on the stage?
Little is subtle or suggested here. During the Offertorium, the tenor and the baritone perform Britten’s setting of Owen’s The Parable of the Old Men and the Young. The poem concludes with a reference to Abraham killing “half the seed of Europe, one by one”. The words were repeatedly projected onto a screen in block capitals. But other aspects were obscure. The coffin and the pictures of sheep were self-explanatory. But what of the child being led through the snow? Or the foam flecked beach? Were these perhaps references to “white age” and to the earth’s “titanic tears, the sea”, in Owen’s poem The End? It was left unclear.
The conductor, the orchestra and the soloists did their best. One highlight was tenor David Butt Philip’s beautiful rendition of Owen’s exquisite poem At a Calvary near the Ancre, part of the Agnus Dei. But, overall, this is not a production for the intellectually fastidious.
In Culture Whisper, Claudia Pritchard refers to an imminent, “catastrophic separation from our allies” (17th November, 2018). Correct me if I am wrong, but I thought that we were leaving the EU not the NATO alliance.
Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of QR