The Organ

Royal Opera Requiems

Royal Opera Requiems
Symphony Hall
March 23rd (4 stars)

Making a rare foray away from its Covent Garden home, the Royal Opera found itself last weekend blinking in the sunlight of one of the world’s greatest concert-halls, and rewarded its Birmingham hosts with heart-piercing performances of two of the most dramatic Requiems in the repertoire.

Verdi’s setting emphasises the soul’s fear of the Day of Judgment, speaking in such desperately human terms in what is an appropriately theatrical voice. Universal concerns are expressed in the utterances of four soloists, their contributions ranging from desperation to supplication, and the articulation of Friday’s operatic singers was projected magnificently, with the minimum of fuss.

Barbara Frittoli, Olga Borodina, Piotr Beczala and Ildar Abdrazakov made a well-blended quartet from which individual contributions emerged naturally, with no hint of upstaging each other. And Antonio Pappano (no “look-at-me” histrionics from this conductor) marshalled everything unobtrusively and with an awareness both of the awesomeness of the material and the vigour of its delivery. At times the lyricism and momentum of his inter­pretation blazed with memories of Verdi’s great colleague, Arturo Toscanini.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, liberated from its habitual pit and therefore actually able to engage with a 2200-strong full house, delivered Verdi’s score with crackling definition, yet also mellifluously organ-like in woodwind choir passages (what a fabulous bassoon quartet).

Renato Balsadonna’s enlarged Royal Opera Chorus relished the purely musical values of their contributions, now danc­ingly light, now impressively sonorous. Unfortunately this expert band of singers, for all its additional members, seemed underpowered in Saturday’s presentation of Britten’s War Requiem. What they ach­ieved was indeed superb, but what was needed here was a sense of cataclysm against which the chamber-scored Wilfred Owen poetry could rail at the futility of it all.

This is a multi-layered work. Up aloft, a children’s choir (here the excellent Tiffin Boys’ Choir) carols beatifically, on the middle ground the chorus delivers the Latin liturgy alongside a soprano priestess (Emma Bell powerful, but more biting incisiveness was needed).

And on ground-level tenor and baritone (Ian Bostridge phrasing so intelligently, Simon Keenlyside cutting yet com­pass­ionate) were accompanied by an acutely alert chamber ensemble, regrettably tucked into a corner of the stage when there were empty choir-stall areas where they could have been accommodated. The main orchestra was magnificent. I have noted before how much opera orch­estras relish the exposure of a concert stage, and this was no exception. And Pappano, so modest in his gestures, drew all the bitter engagement out of this masterpiece.

Symphony Hall, the bonus extra per­for­mer, played its part too, allowing wonder­ful acoustic space for both composers’ spatial imaginations. Pity, though, about the cramped Britten chamber-players.

Christopher Morley