Benjamin Britten’s publisher Boosey & Hawkes has enjoyed a peace dividend this autumn. With so many Remembrance performances of his choral masterpiece happening across the land their print runs and hire takings must be prodigious. And it’s not over yet. Now the Armistice parade’s gone by, here comes a curio from ENO: War Requiem – the Opera.

Roderick Williams and Ensemble © Richard Hubert Smith
Roderick Williams and Ensemble
© Richard Hubert Smith

There’s a growing fashion among opera companies to stage dramatised versions of non-operatic works. Mostly these tend to ring passing bells at best, although Glyndebourne’s Saul stands out as a notable exception. That show, of course, was directed by a proven theatrical iconoclast in Barrie Kosky. English National Opera fields Daniel Kramer.

In fairness to the company’s artistic director, this new staging has none of the ugliness that blighted his previous outings, Tristan and Isolde and La traviata. Issues of taste seldom arise, thankfully. The ironic problem is how little he brings to the table instead. Kramer may be on his best behaviour but inspiration eludes him, so when the going gets tough he cuts to a chase, for example with a game of tag that lends animation but little relevance to Quam olim Abrahae promisisti.

ENO War Requiem Ensemble © Richard Hubert Smith
ENO War Requiem Ensemble
© Richard Hubert Smith

The music is tremendously performed by a panoply of ENO forces under music director Martyn Brabbins. The experience of hearing Britten’s choral complexities rendered by a fully professional choir (the resplendent ENO Chorus together with choristers from Porgy and Bess) is spine-tingling, especially in the intricate hush of Requiem aeternam and the reflective sostenuto of the Recordare, while the music’s explosions of volume have an open-throated magnificence. However, their physical role in Kramer’s laudable but generalised anti-war polemic seldom transcends the dull. The men have to die regularly and the curtain falls while they rise again; the women left behind have even less to do. The young singers of Finchley Children’s Music Group are not the distant ethereal voices of Britten’s concept but are integrated within the staging, a decision that unbalances the sound picture.

There are two coups de théâtre, the first courtesy of the designer, Wolfgang Tillmans, whose photograph of the derelict, bomb-ravaged shell of the old Coventry Cathedral zooms frame by frame into progressive close-up until only a single stone remains in view. On it we detect spores of moss beginning to grow… and there in the midst of death we are in life. It is a telling moment that’s of a piece with the Turner prizewinner’s admirable decision to evoke the grotesquery of human death by projecting not bodies but HD photos of mangled, lightning-wracked tree trunks and other gnarled detritus.

Roderick Williams and David Butt Philip © Richard Hubert Smith
Roderick Williams and David Butt Philip
© Richard Hubert Smith

The second eye-popping moment is physical rather than digital. It involves snow and may be the most extraordinary transformation scene you’ll ever behold. It’s better seen than described so do try and catch it, but bravo to whoever conceived this startling second of magic and made it work.

For the rest, it falls to tenor David Butt Philip and baritone Roderick Williams to tease out what little theatricality there is, and both gave outstanding performances of their exacting solos from the war poems of Wilfred Owen (although I could have done without the soft-shoe and jazz hands at “Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death”). It’s a shame Britten’s raw chamber accompaniment for this pair is left embedded within the main orchestral texture, although Brabbins’ musicians do play it splendidly.

Emma Bell and Ensemble © Richard Hubert Smith
Emma Bell and Ensemble
© Richard Hubert Smith

Kramer contrives an effective funeral ceremony near the end, which is where Emma Bell’s shock-haired, shock-voiced soprano comes into her own. The soprano, fully engaged in her anguish, tempered the role’s requisite vocal steel with a powerful, pliant humanity.

As the coffin descended into the ground an elephant in the graveyard trumpeted a loud, obvious question: why didn’t ENO revive The Silver Tassie instead of faking an opera from a Requiem Mass? Mark-Anthony Turnage’s majestic ENO commission hasn’t been staged since 2002 so that should have been a no-brainer. Perhaps there’s no one left at the Coliseum who remembers it.

***11