There exist few musical works as iconic as Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor. The incredible music mixed with the story of Mozart’s life (eternalized, however inaccurate, most famously in Amadeus) has made it one of the most famous pieces of all time. So, it was hardly a surprise when the English National Opera announced that they would be returning to the Coliseum with a socially distanced performance of this last masterpiece. Unfortunately, the live performances were cancelled and instead the performance was recorded and subsequently streamed at a prime-time hour on BBC 2 on the 14th of November. The hour was hosted by soprano Danielle de Niese and featured haunting shots of an empty Coliseum (one of the West End’s largest venues.) The event that ensued was a performance that felt incredibly “safe.”
The performers were all socially distant which presented itself with a few problems. Oftentimes, the choir had difficulties with keeping in time with the orchestra and conductor. Conductor, Mark Wigglesworth seemed to have difficulty holding the music together in a few moments. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that any architecture had been removed and the choir and orchestra were singing on a bare-bones stage. These acoustics presented a strange set of difficulties. Oftentimes, the soprano section was not loud or assertive enough, which is a shame given that they have some of the nicest lines in the score. Oftentimes, it feels as though it takes choirs a while to get comfortable with this piece (most problematically because Mozart’s autograph ends approximately halfway through with the “Lacrymosa.”) The choir’s blending and timing with the orchestra felt awkward until the “Confutatis” and “Lacrymosa.” Indeed, the Süßmayr section contained some of the best moments of the evening, the “Agnus Dei” and “Sanctus” being particular highlights.
Yet there were several other decisions that seemed “safe” about this performance. Chiefly, the choice of repertoire. Mozart’s Requiem will always draw large numbers of patrons, yet it is also well known amongst performers, meaning that rehearsals would not need to be too intensive. The repertoire was incredibly poignant, however. Mozart’s Requiem indeed is about loss (a reminder of the countless lost to the global pandemic) but also about hope. Furthermore, it felt right that the ENO should perform the work in the original Latin (rather than translating it into English as they usually do,) marking a momentous occasion in a momentous year.
Safety pervaded performance choices as well. This Requiem contained few frills and did not seem to be “historically informed.” All of the tempi chosen were quite safe, with the exception of the “Hostias” which seemed to drag. While conservative, the tempi were really nice and didn’t leave one wanting slower or faster movements.
As for the soloists, the ENO assembled a “safe” team, utilizing the star power of Dame Sarah Connolly and Gerald Finley. It was a breath of fresh air to see the soloists without scores in their hands. Finley provided a nice support to the quartet but did not really provide anything special. Connolly, on the other hand, seemed to struggle when singing alone. Her breath support was incredibly lacking and her phrasing awkward in what felt like a lack of consideration for the orchestral accompaniment. Tenor Ed Lyon was another case of someone whose solos felt tense but blended very nicely with the others. His body movements also seemed strange compared to the others who appeared stoic and strong. The real star of the evening was Soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, who has been a regular at the ENO over the past decade in mostly Puccini and Verdi repertoire. Her voice was heavier than is often heard with the Requiem, but it worked very well. Her breathing was nearly perfect and it felt as though she really cared about blending well with the orchestra.
All in all, Mozart’s Requiem, when performed well, is always moving, and this was certainly that. However, everything about the performance exuded “safety.” Perhaps, in 2020 this is something that we are looking to grasp hold of. It would serve opera companies well to remember, however, that they have the opportunity for a reset at the conclusion of this pandemic. Performances like this could shape the career of young artists such as Llewellyn, who is on the brink of an international career having played Bess at the Metropolitan Opera last year. The time for new voices in classical music is now.
The performance of Mozart’s Requiem from the English National Opera is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
Zack Dickerson, November 2020
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