The Requiem is doubly moving: it marks the passing of those we mourn, but it also marks the end of the brief, brilliant career of the composer himself, who died during its completion, at the age of 35. With Mozart's Requiem, ENO sent a clear message, as the performance was pivoted on to BBC Two (iPlayer): music can transcend the greatest grief.
The stage was stripped to the back wall, with orchestra, chorus, soloists and conductor sharing the maximum possible performing space in front of conductor Mark Wigglesworth. Behind him, in place of the expected socially distanced Coliseum audience, were hundreds of new faces – pictures of themselves sent in to ENO by youngsters from London and Liverpool, several for each seat back.
Possibly the only bonus for music from the pandemic is the unexpected availability here at home of some of the best singers in the world, confined to the UK, and creating together formidable line-ups. Here, soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, tenor Ed Lyon and bass-baritone Gerald Finley were very much the dream team.
Elizabeth Llewellyn, soprano soloist at the Coliseum. Photo: Clive Barda
In February, Llewellyn was tremendously impressive in ENO's wonderfully sung Luisa Miller. Returning to that same stage after such a catastrophic year for live music-making was, she explained to Culture Whisper, a powerful moment. Her warm, luminous tone and Finley's seemingly effortless ability to make light work of the deepest, richest notes are to be marvelled at in their solo passages.
Equally, when the four soloists combine, there are glimpses back to Mozart's greatest operatic achievements, with echoes of ensemble writing in his masterpiece The Marriage of Figaro, familiar terrain for these A-listers.
The Chorus of English National Opera is a wonderfully complex being: a collection of individuals who, when required, can move as one. It is not, however, a choir, as such. The occasional weak entry or muddy sound could be forgiven as these fine singers took on different roles and coped with the unnaturally big gaps between artists who are more accustomed to closely combining efforts.
In the big orchestra, thanks to helpful camera work, there was the additional pleasure of seeing the uncommon basset horns at work. These instruments, in effect clarinets with a bend at the top, were what Mozart knew. They are mellower than the modern clarinet, and play an important role in a work that invokes both pain and consolation.
Bass-baritone Gerald Finley excels in the Requiem. Photo: Clive Barda
In the warm introduction to the performance by soprano Danielle de Niese, no reference was made to the practice of performing the unfinished Requiem as completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayer. Mozart's fellow Austrian worked up the sketches that Mozart left, and wrote that he had many times played and sung through the rest with Mozart. He picked up the work at the Lacrimosa, and the closing Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei are his.
While the blue and silver glow of the stage was entrancing, the absence of screen subtitles would leave some viewers floundering. Not everyone knows the Latin text of the requiem mass inside out, and while the singers convey admirably the sentiments of each section, an English translation would have been a bonus for most.
Nonetheless, this was a powerful and moving broadcast, and one to catch, perhaps more than once: it is on iPlayer for 11 months.
My watching and listening live was accompanied by the sound of fireworks outside, marking Diwali, joyful festival of lights. This blend of cultures, beliefs, and the music and fireworks' shared message that there is more to celebrate than to mourn is one to drawn strength from in trying times.
Mozart's Requiem is on BBC iPlayer until October 2021. Click here to view
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On 14 Nov 20, Recorded at the Coliseum and free to view on BBC2, then on iPlayer
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