Requiem come to life?

Joel Ivany’s much anticipated “semi-staged” version of Mozart’s Requiem K. 626 finally saw the light yesterday evening at Roy Thomson Hall.  There were some interesting ideas but, ultimately, I didn’t think I came away with any new insight into the piece or life or death or anything really(*).  I’ll go into the reasons but first I should describe how it was performed.  The mass is prefaced by the slow movement from the Clarinet Quintet.  The lights go down.  The five players enter via the aisles in the audience lower level and take their seats (sadly to applause which we had been asked to refrain from).  As the quintet is played (and it was very beautiful) the players are joined by the rest of the orchestra, the choirs, conductor and soloists enter through the audience and from the wings and deposited slips of paper (I think) on two benches at front of stage left and right.  Names of the dead?  Probably and that’s a nice touch though scarcely original.  The quintet concludes.  More unwanted applause.  At this point the orchestra are seated , more or less conventionally, around the conductor with the choirs around them.  There are lots of fancy chairs.  The soloists are more or less in conventional position in front of the audience.  Everyone, except the mezzo and the soprano, are in black.  The very crowded stage is quite dimly lit in bluish tones.  As the mass progresses, the soloists interact in various ways.  The choirs gesture in rather obvious ways; the text says “king” so we pump our fists, the text talks of “writing” so we make scribbly gestures.  At some point the soloists start to rearrange the pieces of paper with the names of the dead in a sort of game of Dearly Departed Patience.  The soloists exit through the orchestra.  The lights go down.  The End.

TSO Mozart Requiem (Malcolm Cook photo)

I think there are two things going on here that militate against an effective dramatisation. The first is the nature of a requiem mass.  There’s no story of course.  The words are by way of being a series of incantations in a language that few understand (and here there was neither texts nor subtitles so familiarity with the material was, effectively, being assumed).  Where there is drama it’s unstageable drama.  What can one say, dramatically, about the “Dies Irae”?  It’s hard enough to distill visual meaning out of, say, Messiah.  A requiem, any requiem, is harder still.  Then there was the problem of the space, or lack of it.  An orchestra, even the modest sized one used here, just doesn’t leave much space on the Roy Thomson Hall stage.  Once the choristers have been moved from the choir loft to join them it becomes very crowded.  There’s just not enough room to develop an effective physical language.  One suspects too that even had there been more movement it would have been pretty hard to really see what was going on.

All that said, it was a very decent performance of the mass.  The choice of scale was apt; thirty or so choristers and not too many more in the orchestra.  Bernard Labadie’s conducting was sensitive and well integrated.  The soloists; Lydia Teuscher, Alysson McHardy, Frédéric Antoun and Philippe Sly were all very good and, perhaps more important in this piece, blended very well in the various ensemble numbers.  It was very satisfying and the staging didn’t detract at all but it didn’t add a whole lot either.  So, an experiment  which I’m glad the TSO was prepared to make but not an entirely successful one.

(*)I was in the right mental space for this.  Earlier in the day I had discovered that the Imperial War Museum is compiling a database on everyone who served in the British Army in WW1.  Here’s the entry for my grandfather:

Sapper Fred Evenson
Date of Birth: not yet known
Date of Death: not yet known
British Army, Royal Engineers, Service #56214

That’s it.  So much forgotten so soon

Photo credit: Malcolm Cook

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