Robert Tanitch reviews ENO’s War Requiem at London Coliseum
Benjamin Britten’s meditation on war and loss was written for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962 and has been regularly performed and recorded ever since.
ENO has always championed Britten’s operas and now gives War Requiem its first UK staging. Daniel Kramer’s production, designed by the Turner Prize-winning German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, coincides with the anniversary of the armistice of World War 1 in 1918.
The libretto, a mixture of the sacred and the profane, is the Latin Mass for the Dead interspersed with nine war poems by Wilfred Owen, who was killed a week before the armistice.
“My subject is war and the pity of war,” he said. “The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do today is warn.” Owen was 25 when he died.
What passing bells for those who die as cattle? Britten, pacifist and conscientious objector, responds with horror, anger, grief and pity for doomed youth. War Requiem has a soaring dynamic energy and builds to a superb climax.
There will be those who say oratorios should be heard and not seen and no doubt Kramer’s production will encourage that view. There is nothing on stage comparable to the Great War films such as Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory or to the paintings of such war artists as Paul Nash.
Derek Jarmin in 1989, with a cast which included Tilda Swinton playing a nurse nursing Wilfred Owen, turned War Requiem into an erotic film. Kramer’s staging is often a distracting mess which adds nothing. A large civilian cast mill around, run around and lie down. I wish there had been just some familiar World War 1 newsreel footage.
The soloists, Emma Bell, David Butt Philip, Roderick Williams are impressive. So are the chorus and the orchestra. The Day of Wrath section is a thrilling sound. Martyn Brabbins conducts.