International Collaboration in Dramatic Verdi’s Requiem

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Requiem: Anita Watson (soprano), Monica-Evelin Liiv (mezzo-soprano), David Butt Philip (tenor) and Michel De Souza (baritone), Royal Opera House Thurrock Community Chorus, Brighton Festival Chorus, Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne & Orchestra de Picardie / Arie van Beek (conductor), The Backstage Centre, Purfleet, Essex 4.7.2014. (JPr)

This performance was part of the Royal Opera House’s involvement in ACT – A Common Territory, a European partnership between 13 different organizations on both sides of the English Channel. The partnership supports live performance and culture through the development of projects fostering and developing creative skills in local people and promoting wider access to art and cultural events.

Last year under the ACT programme, the Royal Opera House worked with partners in three significant events: firstly, young people from Southend’s YMCA and the Gateway Academy worked with dancers from the Royal Opera House and joined the French dance company Eco and choreographer Emilio Calcagno in an evening of contemporary dance at the Gateway Academy in Thurrock; then young musicians from Thurrock played alongside the jazz player Chris Brubeck (son of the world famous Dave Brubeck) and Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne in a concert of classical and jazz music at the Civic Hall in Grays, Essex, which was also the debut performance of the Royal Opera House Youth Vocal Group in Thurrock; and finally, in November 2013, Royal Opera House Jette Parker Young Artists joined two French orchestras and the Brighton Festival Chorus to perform Verdi’s Requiem on tour in Amiens, Compiegne and Rennes to sell-out audiences of over 3,500 people. The latter concerts celebrated the Verdi bicentenary in 2013; 2014 is the centenary of the start of World War I that now inspired this year’s FUSED Festival.

FUSED curators Jeremy Haneman and Jacek Ludwig Scarso supported the performances of the Verdi Requiem with, amongst other things, an exhibition of poetic and visual art responses to two key phrases in the score ‘Libera me’ (‘Deliver me’) and ‘Dies irae’ (‘Day of wrath’) – a series of sculptures representing the Requiem’s seven movements as picked up using motion sensors following the movements of the conductor and a cellist, and animations created by students from the University of Creative Arts (also responsible for the sculptures) in response to Verdi’s music and projected on the side of The Backstage Centre as dusk fell.

The FUSED Festival seems to be the focus of the Royal Opera House’s education programme at its lavish Thurrock complex. They clearly wish to inspire, support and develop the learning and creativity of people of all ages through their engagement with the Royal Opera House and to enrich the cultural life of the local community. From the attentive audience present for the introductory talk by Jeremy Haneman (also the chorus master of the ROH Thurrock Community Chorus) and the rapt attention an even bigger audience of all ages gave to the Verdi Requiem itself, they obviously are succeeding. The grounds are spectacular with manicured lawns and a walled garden – together with some older buildings making it something of a mini Glyndebourne – all in the shadow of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge across the Thames in Purfleet, formerly a rather run-down part of West Essex. It was on the old A13 road into London that people used to drive through as quickly as possible unless they were visiting the local entertainment ‘mecca’ called ‘Circus Tavern’. Surprisingly that still survives with its ‘timeless’ mix of attractions, such as, ‘Masters of Darts’, kickboxing events … and the comedian Jim Davidson! It must not be forgotten that the Thurrock site supplies another very important aspect to the Royal Opera House’s work with the hanger-like Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop where sets are built by teams of highly-skilled scenic artists, carpenters, draughtsman, and metalworkers.

Jeremy Haneman began his pre-concert talk in reflective mood about the Verdi Requiem and how famously Rafael Schächter, a Czech composer from Brno (where my grandmother was born), arrived at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1941 with ‘a battered copy of his beloved score’ – the Requiem! The players memorised it from this one copy of the music for piano and their only audience was their captors. They apparent played it 16 times and Haneman said it was as if they could only ‘express themselves through the language of another religion’. For the performers the idea of ‘days of wrath’ and ‘deliverance’ were significant and they got to sing this to those holding them captive. Haneman appositely noted that it gave a ‘new meaning to singing as if your life depended on it’. Apparently at the last of these performance members of the Red Cross were present yet remained oblivious to the horrors of Theresienstadt.

Haneman reminded his audience how important the music of the Verdi Requiem is and how it has also been used to honour the memory of Princess Diana at her funeral, to commemorate the 9/11 tragedy and – on a lighter note – he suggested it would be consoling for the members of the French orchestras because their national football team had just been eliminated form the World Cup! Haneman was assisted by ‘a few brave principal players’ and an electric piano as he illustrated the important themes of Verdi’s seven movements and also pondered on the meaning to the composer of his Requiem. Because Verdi’s music does not seem to reach any empathic conclusion at the end of ‘Libera me’ (‘Deliver me’) Jeremy Haneman considered perhaps Verdi is ‘not sure his prayers have been answered by God or anyone’ and although he ‘created something spiritual … we can take many things from it’ whatever our faith and he posed a final question – ‘is it a mass for the dead … or for the living?’

There are different ways to approach the Verdi Requiem: very reverently as befits the English choral tradition, or something more Italianate and operatic. Tobe honest who can hear ‘Ingemisco’ without remembering Luciano Pavarotti singing this in his prime? With the Royal Opera House involved it was inconceivable that it would be anything else than the latter approach we would get … and so it proved. Performed like this those who have always claimed this Requiem is not entirely a sacred work – but as Hans von Bülow described it ‘Verdi’s latest opera, in church vestments’ – are not far off the mark. It all sounded very theatrical even though there is lots in it about the fear of pain and death that the agnostic Verdi knew about more than most.

The Requiem was written in 1873 when the Italian poet, novelist and national hero Alessandro Manzoni died. Verdi had been a lifelong admirer and was deeply affected by his death. Also Verdi had lost his first wife and two infant children while only in his twenties, though he never considered composing a Requiem then. Nevertheless the highly dramatic writing was given an unusually refined performance from the splendid musicians of the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne and Orchestra de Picardiethat made Verdi’s outbursts even more alarming. We had the shimmering violins at the start of ‘Lux Aeterna’ (‘Eternal Light’) sounding more than ever like the Act I Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin (it cannot be a coincidence) and all the other reminders of Otello and Aida more than once. This cannot be a surprise as Verdi composed the Requiem shortly after latter, an opera full of ritual and sacred music, and before the former, with its stormy opening and reflective Act IV. Jeremy Haneman described Verdi as an ‘eco-friendly composer’ for having ‘recycled’ some unused music for Don Carlos for part of the second movement but there is much more to it than that.

A splash of red distinguished the members of the ROH Thurrock Community Chorus from those in the Brighton Festival Chorus and it was clear they in particular were the focus for the majority of the audience all keenly supporting their family members or friends. I was sitting two rows from the front and had none of the issues with the loudness and immediacy of the music I recently suffered at the Royal Festival Hall for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. By comparison, the auditorium of The Backstage Centre has a splendid acoustic. The combined chorus made a significant contribution to the success of the performance. The opening to ‘Requiem Aeternam’ (‘Eternal Rest’) was suitably hushed and meditative and during Verdi’s ferocious setting of the ‘Dies Irae’ the chorus sang with a vehemence that was never harsh. Their ‘Tuba mirum’ matched this wall of sound and the outburst of joy that is the ‘Sanctus’ had them singing their fugal lines with enthusiasm, clarity, and impressive diction. Arie van Beek’s conducting was incisive, disciplined and brought balance and coherence to all we heard. At the end as the consoling chords of ‘Libera me’ faded away allowing – after a few appropriate moments of silence to reflect on what we had just experienced – the choristers, orchestra, conductor and soloists to get the ovation they deserved.

The four soloists who are – or were – members of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme did well though perhaps there was more than a hint of tiredness toMonica-Evelin Liiv’s mezzo voice though she was able to blend well with her soprano colleague, Anita Watson, in the ‘Agnus Dei’ (‘Lamb of God’) particularly. Ms Watson had a strong dramatic presence and was as stentorian or radiant as the music demanded. The tenor, David Butt Philip, sang with lyricism and sweet tones and Michel de Souza’s baritone voice impressed throughout and was imposing, dark and resonant.

Jim Pritchard


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