For Ballett Zürich's new production of Messa da Requiem, choreographer Christian Spuck  uses Giuseppe Verdi’s memorial mass to inspire 16 staged tableaux, each one a backdrop to a “spiritual impulse” the dancers pass between them. With a theme of death, Spuck holds our rapt attention, death being the one thing every human shares at some point with his fellow man.

Francesco Meli, Georg Zeppenfeld, Veronica Simeoni, Giulia Tonelli and William Moore © Gregory Batardon
Francesco Meli, Georg Zeppenfeld, Veronica Simeoni, Giulia Tonelli and William Moore
© Gregory Batardon

The dancers conjure up emotions we universally associate with death – grief, horror, anger, pain of separation and hope for redemption. But this ballet’s unique sensation is stirred by a joint effort: the 110 member-strong Zurich Opera Chorus and a four superb vocal soloists join the dancers in the choreographed spectacle. At the same time, the Philharmonia Zürich under Fabio Luisi’s baton accompanies with Verdi’s highly stirring score.

Christian Schmidt’s simplistic, entirely unselfconscious box stage is a steely construct that serves the drama foremost, precisely as it should. The certainty of “you, too, must die,” is, of course, bleak. Accordingly, most of the production’s costumes are black, and a thin layer of grey ash covers the stage like a dusting of snow. Yet one hardly has to squint through a murky quagmire to see. In the first of the tableaux, as soloist Guilia Tonelli climbs her way right to left along the slate-grey back wall, a massive industrial light sheds its chiselled glare on her movements. Stark shadows effectively multiply her slow progress, making a metaphor for the approach to the inevitable. In effect, the genius of light design (Martin Gebhardt) and clean-lined, puritanical costumes (Emma Ryott) bring the dark action into something richly three-dimensional.

Giulia Tonelli (Dancer), Veronica Simeoni (Mezzosoprano) © Gregory Batardon
Giulia Tonelli (Dancer), Veronica Simeoni (Mezzosoprano)
© Gregory Batardon
The four solo vocalists were exemplary. Bass Georg Zeppenfeld’s distinctive bronze bass was perfectly calibrated with the others. Tenor Francesco Meli showed himself entirely comfortable, although he occasionally overshadows his vocal partners in quartet configuration. Veronica Simeoni is a stellar mezzo, and the great soprano Krassimira Stoyanova held the stage like a modest Valkyrie, none the least for the dazzling, "space-displacing" gown she wore at the end of the performance.

The huge chorus, under Marcovalerio Marletta’s musical direction, often stood behind the undulations of the dancers, but funnelled together, they also posed at different levels like a reptilian creature or bend – at left or right stage – into the shape of a mighty ship’s prow. In that formation, some even “stood on the backs” of the others, as many are apt to do in this life. Their huge migrations were smooth, nonetheless; their navigation, nicely oiled by clear direction and sense of purpose.

Against that glorious vocal body, the dancers stretch the very limits of the physical. In one tableau, and in a kind of magical zipper, their linked bodies make a single Chinese dragon whose limbs they open and close mechanically. Elsewhere, other dancers wind their bodies in every possible configuration around ever-held hands, or defy gravity in twos and threes, moving as if powered by some otherworldly force. While Spuck himself confessed in an interview that “the audience can read into (the choreography) whatever it wants”, the horror of a dancer’s open mouth and haunted stare are always painful, while exchanges that are lyrical and uplifting mirror the score’s “call me with the blessed ones”.

Filipe Portugal, Yen Han and singers of the Chorus © Gregory Batardon
Filipe Portugal, Yen Han and singers of the Chorus
© Gregory Batardon

Verdi’s music is categorically sublime, and the Zurich Philharmonie expanded his colourful contrasts, giving us both outlandish drama and lulling, soporific melodies to absolute perfection. While the great poet Robert Browning was to cite the composer’s high-volume orchestration as one “of slat-box, tongs and bones,” the musicians here underscored the soloists like kindred spirits with infectious energy. They thundered through the ever-repeating Dies irae as if, like the choir, they were shaking their fists at the fates. For “How great will be the terror, when the Judge comes who will smash everything completely!”

When Verdi premiered this monumental musical work in 1874 to mark the first anniversary of the death of Alessandro Manzoni, a novelist and poet whom he greatly admired, it was cited critically as an “opera in ecclesiastical garb”. It has become widely popular as great choral music since. That said, Spuck’s staging of a ballet to include choreography for its host of singers makes his Zurich production a true pioneer, one highly deserving of the thunderous applause and standing ovation it received.

And that, even as we in our seats faced the last tableau, whose ceiling, pierced with twelve distinct coffers, lowered slowly over the stage. Then tilting down towards the audience and concealing the cast, the machinations of the stage engineering and roof slowly became visible. There − fixed like a chrysalis, and wrapped in burlap among the metal struts − was a human corpse: a last reminder of a fate that, try as we might, none of us will ever escape either.