The Great Hereafter: A Staged Verdi Requiem at the Hamburgische Staatsoper

Verdi – Messa da Requiem

Soprano – Maria Bengtsson
Mezzo-soprano – Nadezhda Karyazina
Tenor – Riccardo Massi
Bass – Gábor Bretz

Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper, Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg / Kevin John Edusei.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Staatsoper, Hamburg, Germany.  Saturday, March 17th, 2018.

Tonight’s Verdi Requiem is not Calixto Bieito’s first staging of a concert work.  He previously staged Britten’s War Requiem for Basel, which was in turn revived in Oslo where it proved to be a remarkable evening in the theatre.  I was interested to see how he would follow up on it.  The weather in Hamburg was rather fierce today with a blustery wind and wind chill temperatures of minus 9.  Unsurprising then that there was indisposition among the cast.  The scheduled tenor, Dmytro Popov, withdrew due to a cold, while Riccardo Massi sang from the wings and assistant director Tim Jentzen walked the part.  It may well be that some of the intricacies of the chemistry between characters might have been lost but on the whole, it worked well dramatically.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

In common with the War Requiem staging, there was no conventional narrative here.  Instead, the music and text were used a starting point to explore a woman’s experience of grief.  We don’t know exactly who she has lost and in what circumstances.  There are suggestions that it’s a child, the ‘luceat eis’ of the opening chorus accompanied with images of happier days en famille.  Perhaps she is actually responsible for the death.  In the ‘dies irae’, the chorus rounds on her, taunting her, threatening her with hell.  The other soloists appear to be family members – the bass, perhaps her husband.  In the ‘confutatis’ he appears to be attempting to come to terms with his own mortality, but also perhaps, attempting to find blame for what had happened.  The fragmented narrative, rather than seeming disjointed, instead reflects and allows us to feel that irrationality of grief, the range of emotions that are neither logical nor easy to resolve.  There was much asked of the cast, physically.  In the ‘libera me’, we saw the three lower voiced soloists attempting to pull a large, wooden structure, as if carrying those who left us, desperately searching for resolution yet finding it nowhere.  In the ‘liber scriptus’, Nadezhda Karyazina delivered her lines suspended from the upper levels of a wooden structure.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

These wooden structures reflect the cemetery walls commonly found in the Iberian peninsula.  The massed forces go through them, climb up them and later, hide in them.  They are rotated around as if to demonstrate how grief never remains constant, but changes and develops with time.  It also highlights to us that constant presence of death.  The ‘agnus dei’ started with the two soloists off stage, gradually rejoining the chorus as the variations proceeded.  It was deeply moving, their voices calling out for comfort and met with the humanity of the chorus.  In common with Bieito’s other more recent work, this was a piece of theatre that didn’t give all the answers, but allowed the spectator to live it through the eyes of his or her own experiences.  There’s also a desperation there.  In the ‘tuba mirum’, the chorus with hands outstretched calling out for answers, the off-stage trumpets thundering through the room, felt incredibly direct compared with the sepulchral voices from beyond as the opening ‘requiem’ emerged from darkness.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Bieito is, of course, known as a superlative director of choruses and the Hamburg chorus was extremely committed.  He populates them with a wide range of characters – they could be baseball fans, teachers, lawyers.  There was one lady, dressed in the sensible suit of a bank manager, pouring out much venom at the soprano in the ‘dies irae’.  Indeed, the choral sopranos as a whole were unafraid to make sounds that were less than beautiful in order to fully bring out the violence of the text.  The seventy ladies and gentlemen sang as if their lives depended on it.  The tone was vibrant, though never with any sense of individual voices sticking out, and they maintained excellent discipline of ensemble throughout, despite the very active staging.  The theatre-filling sound was most impressive.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Maria Bengtsson is a singer who has left me somewhat underwhelmed in the past.  Tonight was something very different.  The voice has filled out nicely and gained added resonance.  She floated her ‘sed’ in the ‘offertorio’ deliciously, with peaches and cream tone of great beauty.  She had no issues riding the ensemble in the big moments and her climactic high C in the ‘libera me’ was wonderfully open and free, capping the textures magnificently.  That treacherous pianissimo high B-flat was perfectly placed.  Bengtsson also blended wonderfully with Karyazina in the ‘agnus dei’, those difficult unison passages absolutely in tune.  Karyazina’s tart mezzo certainly has some interest.  There is a full and juicy chest register there that she wasn’t afraid to exploit fully.   Intonation higher up in the voice had a tendency to come in and out of focus but Karyazina most certainly deserves our admiration for being able to sing the ‘liber scriptus’ while suspending herself from the structure, all while never compromising the integrity of the tone.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Massi brought a big, sunny Italianate sound to the tenor part.  The core of the tone had a tendency to lose focus at lower dynamics around the passaggio but he demonstrated some musical portamenti.  Due to what I imagine was limited rehearsal his tempo disagreements with the pit are understandable.  Gábor Bretz brought his inky, velvety bass to his music.  The quiet dignity that he found for his Philippe I at this same house was ever present, although it felt that he perhaps lacked the uninhibited fire and brimstone needed for the ‘confutatis’.  In the ‘lux aeterna’ he was a tower of strength underpinning the texture.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Kevin John Edusei led a relatively swift reading.  The opening emerged imperceptibly, on gossamer strings, and for the next eighty or so minutes didn’t let go.  There was an intensity there that powered the evening along and felt married to the stage visuals.  Perhaps he could have relaxed more to allow Bengtsson to bring out even more magic at the end of the ‘quid sum miser’ for instance.  The orchestra played well for him, the cellos bringing out a welcome lyricism at the start of the ‘offertorio’ that contrasted with the slightly sour intonation.  The winds, especially, offered playing of considerable beauty and the thwacks of the bass drum felt dangerously threatening.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Tonight we were taken into the heart of a woman’s experience of grief in a staging that animated and illuminated the music.  There will be undoubtedly those uncomfortable with an approach such as this, needing perhaps something more concrete, less abstract.  And yet it felt universal, as if every single person in that room tonight could find something of themselves in what was presented to us on stage.  It was very well performed, with Bengtsson in particular giving singing of beauty and power and acting of staggering abandon.  As the final chords died away, Bengtsson’s final ‘libera me’ sounding not as a passive hope but a desperate supplication, I was left wondering what it is indeed that we need to be liberated from.  For the woman it may have been the multiple feelings of grief or it may have been from life itself.  The answer, I wager will have varied from person to person in the audience.  This was a powerful and challenging piece of theatre, one that offered multiple rewards and multiple revelations.

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