A requiem is by definition a rite that unites the individual experience of death with the collective longing for transcendence. Britten perfected this intended link and composed a requiem for mankind, not only built upon the ruins of the Coventry Cathedral, but also on the moral devastation of the whole continent. Drawing inspiration from the thorny acceptance of his pacifist attitude towards World War II – a ghost that  also lurks in the shadows of Owen Wingrave – Britten gave birth to one of his most ambitious works. For this occasion the Teatro Real gathered a superb team that crowned a brilliant Britten cycle this season, after a memorable Death in Venice and an outstanding Canticles/Nocturne concert with Ian Bostridge.

Pablo Heras-Casado © Fernando Sancho at the Met
Pablo Heras-Casado
© Fernando Sancho at the Met

Britten was always determined to please his audience, to express complex, sometimes obscure, ideas with a stylised but clear musical language. The War Requiem may be the utmost example of this desire to be understood and recognised. He was aware of his public mission as a composer and of the solemnity of the message he was delivering, and he also knew very well the tacit boundaries of the commission: his pacifist pledge could have certainly been sharper, and his descent to the mud of the trenches murkier, but the lullaby-like final scene could not have been more healing. Despite the apparent extroversion of the work, everything is in fact expressed through a minimal set of resources that drags the monumental nature of a requiem mass down to the intimacy of poet Wilfred Owen's particular experience. The triple structure of the work reflects and solves this apparent contradiction: the War Requiem might be described as a song cycle for chamber orchestra and two voices, containing the full essence of the work, where the orchestra, a full chorus led by a soprano, an organ and a children's choir are but a reinforcement (in the same way as in a cathedral the whole structure of pillars and buttresses are but supports to the stained glasses).

It is amazing how Britten uses Owen's poems to insert the content of the old liturgical text of the requiem mass into a contemporary narrative. The two texts run in parallel with some occasional contact points where they intertwine to create impressive new meanings. Owen's verse "Was it for this the clay grew tall?" finds a desolate frame in the notes of the Lacrimosa, and the subverted story of Abraham and Isaac ("but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one") daringly defies the sense of the Hostias. But the most compelling interaction is to be found at the end: in this requiem, eternal rest does not come after the severe judgement of God but after the sincere forgiveness of the two enemies and their soothing invitation to sleep, after the world's retreat. A “retreating world” also at the beach of the Lido, where Aschenbach laid asleep after the carnage and the subsequent reconciliation of Apollo and Dionysus.

Pablo Heras-Casado, in a break from the performances of Mauricio Sotelo's El Público, conducted the orchestra of the Teatro Real, confirmed the remarkable technical level and the stylistic maturity that has achieved in the last years. Heras-Casado, who is consolidating at the age of 37 his unstoppable career, offered a canonic and cautious version of Britten's work, always keeping volume and intensity under his reins, privileging brain over artifice, while calm tempos contributed to a transparent exposition of the score. His conscious rejection of mysticism should not be mistaken for superficiality, even if one cannot avoid thinking that his final say on the work is yet to come. The orchestra offered some great soloist interventions, especially the first violin and the clarinet of the chamber section. More rehearsal or maybe a concert tour would have surely polished the rendition but overall it was a great job. The chorus displayed a perfectly uniform sound and proved true commitment to Heras' vision of the work, and the children's choir sounded astonishingly mature, with unearthly phrasing.

Susan Gritton was overwhelmed by the wide tessitura of a role that is written for dramatic soprano and that is frequently miscast. Elegant and musical though she is, her voice lacked density and clout in the long phrases of the Lacrimosa, and sounded strained and almost without vibration in the top notes. The two male soloist, on the other hand, were excellent. John Mark Ainsley proved that he is a specialist in the field and that he masters the complex vocal style that Britten devised for Peter Pears. Each intervention was full of phrasing details, thanks to an absolute control of his instrument (a lyric tenor voice with a nice touch of nasality). He filled his role with an introspective intensity that contrasted Jacques Imbrailo's energetic and expansive performance and whose extremely beautiful and warm baritone almost stole the show. Although a bit guttural, surely due to a very relaxed positioning of the voice, his voice shines with striking clarity. He was brilliant in his final intervention when he acted, subtle but dramatic, the final encounter of the two soldiers.