Posted on December 12, 2018
English National Opera (ENO) has developed close ties with Benjamin Britten’s music since giving the world premiere of Peter Grimes in 1945. In the wake of that historic event, the company has presented five further stage works, including, during this year alone, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Turn of the Screw, and the operetta Paul Bunyan.
Rounding out 2018, it chose to mark the centenary of the World War I armistice with the first UK staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Directed by Daniel Kramer with set designs by the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, the production involved an enormous cast: three named soloists; an 81-member chorus; and a children’s choir, 44 strong, from the Finchley Children’s Music Group.
To assist in transforming the meditative score into theatre, Kramer enlisted a choreographer, Ann Yee, with whom he has collaborated before, knowing that together they could count on ENO’s invariably courageous ensemble to fulfill its primary obligation to the music while moving, even dancing, as directed.
By interleaving the requiem’s text, sung in Latin, with Wilfred Owen’s pacifist poetry, sung in English, Britten infused each with the other, constructing a charged emotional atmosphere rather than a narrative, which may be why Kramer staged the score as a series of independent scenes.
Each took place in dimness and shadows, with every person on stage bar one in dark clothes; the cast included ENO’s ensemble from Porgy and Bess, but I didn’t honestly notice black faces or white among the shabby rags and sombre uniforms. Each episode conjured familiar wartime circumstances – a crowd of prisoners, a heap of bodies, a military funeral – and each resonated with loss and sorrow.
Anyone who expected Kramer and Yee to enhance Britten’s efforts or expose aspects of the text that he hadn’t captured in his music would have been deeply disappointed. Though they had no trouble keeping our eyes engaged, confidently shifting the huge numbers around the space, the movement seemed banal and impersonal, never accumulating emotional weight or dramatic conviction.
As if they’d raided a collection of stock images, they sent exhausted victims circling the stage in a shuffling stumble and arranged them in neat rows awaiting graves. Hands flew upward to protect heads, and bodies crouched as the thunderous music conjured bombs. Tense fighters threw fake punches to let off steam as “we laughed at death.” Innocent children played in the snow. Two men snatched a body from a grieving woman and carried it away, as someone else knelt to embrace her.
Leonard Bernstein’s Mass requires a dance element – the Alvin Ailey company initially – to be fully realised, and Kenneth MacMillan’s Requiem seems to emerge organically from the Fauré requiem that accompanies it. However, not every liturgical composition lends itself to staging, and with the best will in the world, not every director or choreographer can match spiritual intensity with enlightening movement. In this case, whatever Britten left undone couldn’t be done by this team. He seems to have said all he intended to say, so it might have been a better idea for Kramer to step back, having nothing original to add, and let him have the last word.
Pictured: English National Opera in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Photograph by Richard Hubert Smith.