Dan Keane reviews Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a key highlight of the London Coliseum’s 2018/2019 season.

Image: (c) Richard Hubert Smith

It is difficult for any artist to find an appropriate medium to convey the immensity of pain generated by war. Such is the task of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, first performed in 1962 to mark the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed by the Luftwaffe in the Coventry Blitz of 1940.

The opera movingly blends the poetry of Wilfred Owen with the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead. This adaptation, animated by Daniel Kramer and designed by Turner-prize winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, is a fine modern interpretation of Britten’s anguished portrayal of the ‘long war’ of the 20th century, but is let down by a lack of aesthetic coherence in its design.

Musically, the piece has lost none of its extraordinary gravitas in this performance by the English National Opera, skilfully conducted by Martyn Brabbins. Stravinsky may have scoffed that the piece consists of ‘patterns rather than inventions’, but the Requiem is a chaotically inventive piece: the melody of which hinges on the disorientating tritone between C and F Sharp.

(c) Richard Hubert Smith

This harmonic distance gradually grows closer as the piece progresses; mirroring Europe’s long, arduous transition into peacetime. Baritone Roderick Williams and Soprano Emma Bell stand out in particular, their voices soaring above the menacing strings.

The choir plays the victims of war convincingly. They are in constant movement, and the choreography fits brilliantly alongside the peaks and troughs of the music. Costumes, designed by Nasir Mazhar, are deliberately plain, allowing for a feeling of timelessness that evokes the universality of the war experience across the century.

Wolfgang Tillmans’ design, however, oscillates constantly between captivating and frustrating. Three large screens project a visual overload of human suffering: a website for the charity Remembering Srebrenica, environmental devastation, and pollution.

Image: Richard Hubert Smith

At its worst, there are images of football hooligans fighting in the streets. Tillmans’ intention is well meant: to homogenise the terror caused by all violence and in doing so expose the ugly core of human nature. But to draw equivalence between a gang of football thugs scrapping and the tragic death of millions of soldiers and civilians in Europe’s two World Wars feels somewhat melodramatic and unnecessary.

Tillmans succeeds in his moments of subtlety: a drop of snow exploding like a mushroom cloud, or the projections of an anti-war pamphlet by German pacifist Ernst Freidrich. At times, the sobering beauty of the music can feel overpowered by the drama onstage; leaving the audience over-stimulated, rather than reflective.

Nonetheless, the piece retains much of its awesome power. Britten himself, as a conscientious objector, may have only observed the horror of the Second World War from a distance, but the Requiem transmits a rare depth of feeling: connecting the dots between Wilfred Owen, the desperate civilian, and the traumatised soldier. All are victims of what Owen calls the ‘pity of war’: a horror that, Britten reminds us, we cannot allow ourselves to stumble into again.