An Imaginative Presentation of Mozart’s Requiem that is More than Multi-Layered

FranceFrance Mozart, Requiem K626 (original fragments): accentus, Insula Orchestra / Laurence Equilbey (conductor). La Seine Musicale, Paris, France, 27.6.2019 (CC)

(c) Julien Benhamou

Yoann Bourgeois – director
Yuri Tsugawa – artistic assistant
Antoine Garry -sound design
Jérémie Cusenier – lighting
Signolène Pétey – costumes

Hélène Carpentier (soprano)
Eva Zaïcik (mezzo-soprano)
Jonathan Abernethy (tenor)
Christian Immler (bass)

A collaboration between circus artist Yoann Bourgeois and Laurence Equilbey with her combined choral/orchestral forces of accentus and Insula, this was a presentation of what we have of Mozart’s Requiem (no Süßmayr in sight). The performance, the first of six at La Seine Musicale, acted as the climax to the ‘Festival Mozart Maximum,’ which had already seen a coupling of Mozart and Steve Reich, La Betulia liberata from Rousset, a more traditional coupling of Mozart Symphony No.40 and Schubert Symphony No.5 (Insula/Equilbey) and the Fifth Violin Concerto (Erich Hobarth/Insula).

For the Requiem, a shiny black curved surface dominates, towering above the stage, a reflecting black mirror. Many dancers will scale it, only to slide down (a descent into Hell perhaps – or a descent back to this life? – or are they the same thing?). The chorus will sing from its apex as well as at stage level. At times, the top of the curve crenellates, creating spaces to semi-frame soloists; the chorus, too, can appear at the very summit. The Mozart fragments are separated by electronic sounds that could easily be influenced by Stockhausen, times out of time, representations of the spaces left by the incomplete nature of Mozart’s score. The idea is to find a ‘window of eternity’; acrobat/dancers frequently find themselves in suspension, playing with time, bringing us closer to an atemporal abyss. For Bourgeois, it is this very incompleteness of the piece that is the inspiration: ‘It opens the meaning around the question of emptiness,’ he says. Variously describes as an acrobat, actor, juggler, and dancer, Yoann Bourgeois trained at ENACR (National School of Circus Arts Rosny-sous-Bois) before training in contemporary dance at the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine in Angers.

The stage itself rotates – circles that move around, inspired by Foucault’s pendulum (a pendulum that, because of the Earth’s rotation, rotates once every 30+ hours; the first public showing of a Foucault pendulum, significantly, took place in Paris, in February 1851). The idea may be known to those of literary bent via Umberto Eco’s fabulous novel Foucault’s Pendulum. Inevitably, other references bring themselves forwards – the orbits of planets, Dante’s circles of Hell, the latter particularly as dancers attempt to scale the pure black edifice. As the circle rotates, dancers may struggle to join or to stay on; community becomes important. The eternal, never-ending sign of a circle meets contemporary issues of self and other, or group and belonging, and thence perhaps to refugees and borders. And there is another dissonance, to add to the beautifully painful, aching dissonances of Mozart’s score: that between fall and centrifugal force, between line (the dancers sliding and falling down the black slope – and through clever visual trickery, it really is made to look as if the acrobats fall off a cliff down into an unknown) and circle (those rotating at the front of the stage). A presentation of permanent universal forces against the human is a prime aspect. The Universe will always win: it is eternal, we are not.

The idea of presenting the fragments (which make up about half an hour in total) against panels of sound that echo around the auditorium is fascinating. Enigma is all, because the Mozart Requiem is enshrouded in it anyway, from the mysterious commission, to why he took so long over it, why it became so overpowering in his mind. It is the stuff of legend (and film), so no surprise that Bourgeois refers to it as a ‘mythical monument’. As a torso, it generates an ‘eloquent tension’; emptiness was Bourgeois’ first point of call. A phrase that dominated his thought processes, he says in an interview in the programme booklet, was ‘as tears flow down the bodies, on the black page of fate’.

All this would be nothing without Mozart’s sublime music. The period instrument Insula Orchestra presented the score – which has a characteristic sound thanks to basset horns and three trombones – with an impeccable sense of drama, hard-sticked timpani seeming to underline the relentless nature of death itself. A fast ‘Kyrie’ underpinned the first of many repeated attempts at ascent on-stage – attempts to attain the Divine, to escape the prison of mortality, perhaps? Or attempts to escape death itself? Suddenly, soon, a bass note is prolonged, completely unexpectedly and we go into another sonic world; as we are between movements, so we the listeners are suspended in sonic space, a space presumably intended also to be beyond time.

Soloists emerge from the mass, or interact with it. Tenor Jonathan Abernethy was one of the most beautiful voiced of the four, a lyric tenor of great eloquence. Matching him was the bass Christian Immler (who I last saw in March as Hermit/Voice of Samiel in the Insula Der Freischütz in Aix: review), superbly strong in the ‘Tuba mirum’. Hélène Carpentier was a beautifully pure soprano soloist, Eva Zaïcik a strong mezzo. The Insula Orchestra was on top form, supplicatory phrases sculpted rather than conducted by Equilbey, but also capable of the greatest invocations of terror.  But the main protagonist, and the real star of the show, was accentus, Equilbey’s ever-magnificent choir. When the end comes, and the light fades on stage, we are left with the sounds of wind and the stage’s rotating circles resonating on. That quasi-silence, poignant in its absence of Mozart’s music – as all the interludial segments are – is a remarkable moment. For, although the music stops, there is no escape from that bleak eternity.

Multi-layered does not even start to cover a description of this interpretation of Mozart’s Requiem. Laurence Equilbey continues to think outside of the box, with magnificent results. A reminder for those readers in the UK: that Der Freischütz mentioned above comes to the Barbican in November.

Colin Clarke

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