Coventry Cathedral; Dome, Brighton; Coliseum, London
Warsaw, Dresden, Coventry: tolling name by city name, these places remain bitter symbols of obliterative war. The sorrows of Warsaw have been immortalised in numerous films, the powdered silence of Dresden in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Coventry was razed to the ground in the Nazis' sickeningly named operation Moonlight Sonata. With fitting irony, that city has itself become associated with two musical masterpieces: Michael Tippett's King Priam and Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, premiered on consecutive nights in May 1962, days after Basil Spence's new cathedral, built to embrace the bombed-out shell of its medieval predecessor, was consecrated.
Last week both were honoured with half-century performances, the Britten on the exact date in Coventry Cathedral, the Tippett a few days earlier as a triumphant, if hot conclusion to this year's Brighton festival. Wrenching in impact, these absorbing accounts were surely yet more overwhelming than those ill-prepared premieres in the workshop-like surroundings of a barely completed building.
Britten's magnificent if uneven War Requiem, an amalgam of the Requiem mass with poems by Wilfred Owen, calls on large orchestra and chamber ensemble, two choirs and soloists. The composer was horrified when he heard the abysmal standards of an early choral rehearsal. "Anyone can join in" was the misguided message from the church authorities. He lost confidence in his own powers to steer the sprawling forces required and brought in a second conductor. The soprano (Galina Vishnevskaya) dropped out at the last minute, banned by the Soviet authorities. When eventually she came to rehearse the first recording, she threw a tantrum and was to be found lying on the vestry floor shrieking. This is all told in a lively new anniversary study by Michael Foster.
Last Wednesday the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which gave that first performance in 1962, returned to Coventry with the CBSO Chorus and Youth Chorus and fine soloists: soprano Erin Wall, tenor Mark Padmore and bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann. The blistering performance, to a capacity audience, was led by the CBSO's charismatic Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons – who, from a Soviet bloc country, would presumably have suffered the same fate as Vishnevskaya minus histrionics. It's a sobering reminder of the bleak oppression of musicians in those cold war years and how, in this respect anyway, life has improved.
The light-filled building was used to full effect. The CBSO Youth Chorus was positioned at the high altar beneath Graham Sutherland's Christ in Glory tapestry, all golden section and green resurrection. Orchestra and main chorus were at the opposite end, under the great glass screen engraved with winged angels, the medieval ruins silhouetted beyond. The pacifist Britten always maintained he wanted the work to survive for its message – quoting Owen, a warning against war "and the pity of war" – as much as for the music, which certainly has a few dull moments. Its stirring glory, delivered with rare clarity despite the cathedral's soupy acoustic, lies in the vicious brass fanfares, the roaring percussion, the sinewy chamber sections and above all the writing for chorus: the hushed opening "Requiem aeternam", the sour radiance of "Et lux perpetua", the wailing "Libera me" and the ethereal interjections of children's voices.
As the work ended, an unearthly silence fell. Tenor and baritone, who sing the lines of two enemy soldiers before uniting in the tender "Let us sleep now…", looked drained. Padmore sang with visionary intensity. Müller-Brachmann maintained an unadorned simplicity of expression. The performance was dedicated to his teacher, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – for whom the baritone role was created – who died last month. As Fischer-Dieskau, who in 1962 had to be led off at the end by the tenor Peter Pears, later recalled: "I was completely undone; I did not know where to hide my face. Dead friends and past suffering arose in my mind." His words say it all.
You can listen again to the Radio 3 relay or see it online via the Space. A Unitel DVD will follow later this year. The performance was televised live to 17 nations – but not, dispiritingly and unsurprisingly and despite pleading and reasoning, in the UK. At least we can smile at the CBSO's cheerful badge of honour: they had more TV lorries lined up outside than Coldplay, performing in Coventry two days before.
In King Priam, Tippett took Homer's Iliad as the starting point for an opera exploring notions of choice and fate. Priam must choose whether to kill his child, Paris, who according to prophecy will cause his father, the king's death. War is a backdrop to domestic strife. Yet the work still comes across as a pacifist's cry from the heart. Sian Edwards, conducting, brought out the clean but glimmering colours of Tippett's score, played with lean energy by the Britten Sinfonia. Led by Brindley Sherratt's sonorous and sympathetic Priam, Alan Oke's masterly Achilles and Mark Stone's macho Hector, the performance whetted the appetite for a long overdue staging. Fortunately Royal Academy Opera plans a production next year. That will be an opportunity to revisit this remarkable score at proper length.
Detlev Glanert's Caligula, based on Camus's play and given its UK premiere at the Coliseum last week, tackles another aspect of authority and corruption. The emphasis is on a single dictator, the bawdy, tyrannical third emperor of Rome, Caligula. Hans-Ulrich Treichel's libretto has been translated into robust, singable English by Amanda Holden. The text, together with some elegant polyphonic choral writing, is the strongest element.
Benedict Andrews directed an outstanding Return of Ulysses for ENO in 2011 but lost focus in this football stadium setting, designed by Ralph Myers, in which steep banks of upturned seats were hardly enlivened by all the theatre-of-cruelty walk-ons: clowns, men in suits and paper hats, cloned tiller girls with a bit of modest nakedness. Peter Coleman-Wright was, contrary to the role, heroic not least in his efforts to sing above the orchestra, Yvonne Howard his silver-tongued wife, Christopher Ainslie the feckless slave, Helicon. All the talk about the moon and debauchery has been better done in Herod's court in Strauss's Salome. Catch the new revival at the Royal Opera House – with Andris Nelsons conducting and Angela Denoke as the titular Ms Neurotic – if you want high and blood-bespattered style.
• This article was amended on 6 June 2012. In the original we said that King Priam was first performed at Coventry Cathedral. In fact the premiere was at the Belgrade theatre, Coventry, as part of the Coventry Cathedral festival. This has been corrected.
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