Verdi’s Requiem is the most operatic of all the great requiems, and indeed after its first performance in the church of San Marco, Milan in 1874 the 2nd, 3rd and 4th performances were given at La Scala. However it remains a choral work with soloists, and it is therefore brave of ENO to follow up their staging of the St John Passion – which at least has developed characters – with a staged requiem. Does it work? For me, the answer is a resounding yes.
The production is spare – an off-white box, with the chorus seated in strict rows facing us, dressed in black. In fact they continue to assemble as we take our seats, as if they’re drifting in from the street for a rehearsal – these are very obviously real people, not characters. The soloists are hidden among them, only recognisable when they stand up to sing, and then sinking back into the anonymous crowd.
Just when you’re wondering if there is going to be any staging at all, the Dies Irae hits us with a wall of sound, the chairs and people are scattered and the drama begins. Director Phyllida Lloyd gave us an engrossing procession of tableaux using minimal props and very skilful lighting to bring out the meaning behind the beautiful Latin, which all too often we hear as just another strand within the music. (A good English translation in the programme helps too, especially as the diction of the singers is not always clear.) There are some memorable visual triumphs – during the Sanctus, children in bright primary colours play among the sombre ranks of the chorus. During the Lux Eterna, candles are lit within huddled groups of people, gradually opening out like giant glowing flowers as the light spreads. I thought the naked pregnant woman at the beginning of birth-to-death sequence was a little OTT, but this is ENO, after all.
The singing was fabulous. Paul Daniel is a wonderful Verdi conductor and both chorus and orchestra were in fine form. Claire Weston (soprano) was gorgeous in quiet moments, floating high notes across that huge auditorium, but a little harsh at higher volume. Rafael Rojas (tenor) has a sweet voice but not too much power on this showing, and was effectively drowned out at times. Susan Parry (mezzo-soprano) was glorious – she goes from strength to strength.
But the excitement for me came with the bass, American David Pittsinger, making his ENO debut. Rarely have I heard such melting sweetness, such clarity and such power all bound together. He has plans for Don Giovanni at New York City Opera and it would almost be worth the air fare… one can only hope that those clever people at ENO will sign him up for some tasty roles here.