Arts Arts & Books

The most startling gesture on an opera stage in years

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was composed for the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1963, as a choral work to be performed in concert; but the way it spikes the Latin Requiem texts with poetry by Wilfred Owen has a vivid sense of drama that occasionally encourages directors for the stage (and sometimes cinema) to turn it into theatre.

On the whole this is a thankless task because there’s no sustaining narrative. It usually ends up as ritualised abstraction punctuated by stark images of swollen bodies in the trenches of the Somme – which is what everyone expected from the latest attempt at English National Opera by Daniel Kramer, a director with a less than luminous track record.

But no. After a faltering start where it seemed as though we were in for the standard soldier images and swarms of people wandering round the stage in circles, looking anxious, Kramer actually found something meaningful to show – thanks partly to spectacular projections by the celebrated German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, but more broadly to some powerful direction concepts. Best of all was a giant snow-bomb that fell from the sky and engulfed the stage in a tsunami of whiteness at the start of the Sanctus – the most startling gesture I’ve seen on an opera stage in years.

And almost as arresting were the things found for the soloists – Emma Bell, David Butt Philip, Roderick Williams, all of them superb – to do, delivered with a focus that was razor-sharp. The chorus by comparison were slightly ragged, giving the conductor Martyn Brabbins a hard time in holding them together. But the end result was still dynamic, and a good night for a company where good nights are in short supply.

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The painter Oskar Kokoschka was one of Alma Mahler’s lovers; and when she dumped him he, perhaps grotesquely, sank his grief into a life-sized doll of Alma that accompanied him to the theatre and restaurants. It’s the subject of a one-man opera, called Kokoschka’s Doll, that the composer John Casken has written for the veteran Wagner bass John Tomlinson. And it played impressively the other week at Hampstead Arts Festival, where Tomlinson dispelled any ideas that retirement might be round the corner with a performance of charismatic and (as ever) thunderous power.

The only problem was that, as the running time was barely 40 minutes, it was prefaced by a separate, song-based entertainment that involved a strident mezzo awkwardly pretending to be Alma while John Tomlinson (dressed as “Kokoschka’s spirit”) sat onstage in total silence, watching her. For 50 minutes. How we longed for him to intervene and put an end to it.