The Pity of War: Calixto Bieito’s Staging of the War Requiem in Oslo

Britten – War Requiem

Soprano – Natalia Tanasii
Tenor – Evan LeRoy Johnson
Baritone – Johannes Kammler

Norske Operakoret, Norske Operaorkestret / Lothar Koenigs.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Den Norske Opera, Oslo, Norway.  Saturday, September 10th, 2016.

Tonight’s performance was the Scandinavian premiere of a production that had already been seen in Basel a few years ago.  To mark the occasion, the word ‘war’ was tagged in huge yellow letters on the glass exterior of the stunning Oslo opera house.  In an interesting round-table discussion streamed on the house’s website, Calixto Bieito mentioned how his grandmother would tell him stories of the Spanish Civil War.  War is a reality of many lives in many parts of the world today and for those of us raised in more recent decades in North America and Europe, it lives on in the memories of our grandparents.  While our young people are sent to fight in places that were once unheard of but that have latterly become part of our consciousness – Kandahar, Basra, Kabul – for many of us, war is something that other people do, our experience of it is distant.  For Bieito however, war is something that happens to all of us – the cyclical nature of war, decided by anonymous men in suits, is something that directly affects our friends and our children.

Johannes Kammler, Operakoret © Erik Berg
Johannes Kammler, Operakoret © Erik Berg
Bieito is clear that the War Requiem is not an opera and he does not approach it with the intent of establishing a conventional, linear narrative.  Rather the text and the music are the starting points for a visualization of the work brought to life by a highly committed trio of soloists and a chorus that completely threw themselves into everything asked of them.  That isn’t to say that the text isn’t illustrated – in ‘the parable of the old man and the young’ we see the baritone tying up the tenor as if ready for slaughter precisely in the way the poem describes.  Yet for the most part, Bieito’s imagery feels completely integrated into the musical canvas.  The way the chorus held books aloft in the ‘dies irae’ as if desperately looking for answers in scripture yet completely failing to find them was both musically and dramatically gripping.

Natalia Tanasii, Johannes Kammler, Evan LeRoy Johnson, Operakoret © Erik Berg
Natalia Tanasii, Johannes Kammler, Evan LeRoy Johnson, Operakoret © Erik Berg
What is notable about this production however is that it doesn’t give us, as spectators, all the answers.  The ladies of the chorus are dressed in uniform black dresses, the gentlemen in suits, yet every single chorister presents an individual personality as well as being part of a larger collective unit moving in unison and separately.  We are left to draw our own conclusions as to who the soloists are – are they soldiers? A grieving mother?  The soprano has dried blood on her right leg suggesting that she may well have been a victim of war as much as the men.  They are however flesh and blood characters who have known pain and horror and who seek only resolution.

Natalia Tanasii, Operakoret © Erik Berg
Natalia Tanasii, Operakoret © Erik Berg
The basis of the War Requiem of course is a religious text and Bieito seems to suggest here that religion does not have the answers to resolve what war creates and may, in fact, be responsible for it.  In the ‘agnus dei’ as the tenor sings ‘at a Calvary near the Ancre’ he stands, hanging from the scaffolds like a crucifix, raising the question what did this solider die for?  The stained glass window at the back of the stage disappears just before the ‘libera me’ where the chorus’ howls of pain go seemingly unanswered.  And yet they do – resolution comes not through religion but through reconciliation, the tenor and baritone making peace at last.  In Bieito’s world however this peace doesn’t last for long – we see a boy dressing in a soldier’s uniform as the soprano holds her arms out, desperate for him not to be enlisted.

Johannes Kammler, Evan LeRoy Johnson © Erik Berg
Johannes Kammler, Evan LeRoy Johnson © Erik Berg
Musically, this was a performance on the very highest level.  The house chorus was sensational.  Those tricky unaccompanied passages in the ‘kyrie’ and at the very end were sung with impeccable tuning but were also so perfectly blended that the inventiveness of Britten’s harmonies came out in a way that I had never heard it before.   The 67 singers sang as if their lives depended on it.  The fervour that they found as they punched out ‘cuncta stricte discussurus’ or the desperate imprecations of their ‘hosanna’s, far from the empty triumphalism we often hear, was awe-inspiring.  In the ‘libera me’ the ladies weren’t afraid to sacrifice beauty of tone to really bring the horror and isolation through in the text.  The tone was rich, but far from the unbearable war of vibratos other opera choruses routinely subject us to, and the sonorous basses also made an undeniable impact in the unaccompanied music.  The well-trained children’s chorus acquitted themselves impeccably.  The orchestra – both the chamber orchestra on stage and the larger band in the pit – played extremely well, the quality of the brass playing was excellent and the strings had good body and tuning.  Lothar Koenigs led a reading that I would describe as unobtrusive – I don’t mean that to be a bad thing, rather that he had such a strong view of the work’s architecture than everything he did felt absolutely right.

Evan LeRoy Johnson, Johannes Kammler, Natalia Tanasii © Erik Berg
Evan LeRoy Johnson, Johannes Kammler, Natalia Tanasii © Erik Berg
All three soloists are still in their twenties and their youth was manifested in their tireless presence on stage.  Natalia Tanasii was an imperious soprano soloist and an unstinting actress.  Hers is a bright and penetrating soprano, used with genuine and unmistakable musical instincts.  I was however aware of her giving just a little too much vocally – this is highly declamatory music and demands a lot of stamina and I felt that it sat just a little on the heavy side for her.  She has all the notes and her mellifluous incantations in the closing pages were glorious to hear but it sounded, to my ears at least, that the part takes her to her current limits.   Johannes Kammler’s baritone was a warm and handsome vocal presence.  He sang with a lieder singer’s attention to text and genuinely brought out the beauty of Owen’s writing through his intelligent use of tone colours.  The voice lacks a little in resonance at the very bottom but he got around that well and this is something that will definitely come with time.  Evan LeRoy Johnson is a very promising talent.  The voice is bright, open and very well placed.  He already has an immaculate technique with a superb ability to hone the tone right down to a single thread of sound.  He also has an ability to bring out the beauty of the text in an extremely special way.

Natalia Tanasii, Operakoret, Johannes Kammler, Evan LeRoy Johnson © Erik Berg
Natalia Tanasii, Operakoret, Johannes Kammler, Evan LeRoy Johnson © Erik Berg
As so often with Bieito this was a truly compelling evening in the theatre.  One that raised the very nature of war and its effects on all of us, even if we have never directly experienced it.  It many ways, it provided catharsis as two people who were once enemies found reconciliation.  In others, the presence of a few men in suits standing on the scaffolds overlooking the crowd and the young boy being sent to war reminded us that war is a constant and its effects are real.  As that outstanding chorus closed the show with a ravishingly beautiful and perfectly placed pianissimo final chord, the audience sat in complete silence, each person bringing their own answers and their own experiences.

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