Sadler’s Wells, London
March 20, 2018
Although what we now call Mozart’s Requiem was barely begun by Mozart, the later reworkings maintain the integrity of his original manuscripts. Süssmayr’s possible intentions to present the Requiem as entirely his own following his initial additions after Mozart’s death may have been morally dubious, but his commitment to the musical intentions was not. That the same cannot be said for Alain Platel’s and Fabrizio Cassol’s Requiem pour L. is an understatement of the highest magnitude.
The whole of the back of the stage is covered in a screen on which is projected throughout the whole two hours of the work a giant image of a dying, then dead, woman’s face, although other faces and arms occasionally also loom into shot like heads popping up on a pirate DVD of a blockbuster film. On a few occasions, the performers turn towards the her but mostly, she is ignored and objectified, her agonal breathing and slack-jawed ending robbed of all dignity and intimacy.
The stage is covered in rostrums. There is no dance as such, although the cast do sometimes strut and stomp like demented chickens and even squat-jump between the podiums like caged primates. When seated, they flex their chests with varying degrees of ability.
The charge of cultural appropriation is usually levied when aiming barbs at ex-colonial powers. One of the definitions is that the original meaning of the cultural elements is lost or distorted and that such displays can be viewed as disrespectful or as a form of desecration by members of the originating culture. Every single aspect of that definition fits the performance of Requiem Pour L., as evidenced by the people who walked out. I saw five on the right side of the stalls and heard banging seats from behind thereafter. How I wish I could have joined them.
The Mozart Requiem as it is now sung is one of the gems of the choral canon: to witness it violated by ‘re-scoring’ it for thumb pianos, a euphonium (used to make flatulent noises as much as played), electric guitars and singers who snap their fingers and tramp their feet in time to the mangled rhythms is agonising and offensive. It is no more African or Latin American than Platel and Cassol are Mongolian.
Phrases are ripped from their context and repeated like sections of songs sampled by a DJ. Complex harmonies and counterpoint are subsumed into simple resolutions and crunched into inappropriate keys.
Of the classically trained singers, the countertenor latter looked and sounded as if he had wandered into the wrong production by mistake having expected Monteverdi. As for the baritone, one hoped that the ore leonis might swallow him up and at least leave him with some dignity intact and our ears unassailed. The soprano struggled with support and intonation in several places, but one can hardly blame her given the circumstances. Both the baritone and the soprano phrased what they did get to sing in the most bizarre manner, sucking in great breaths in the middle of the text. The great ‘Tuba Mirum’ was taken at three times the intended speed. The ‘Lacrymosa’ did inspire tears, but not for the right reasons.
There is a reason that David Fanshaw’s African Sanctus and Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, to name but two, are rarely performed. Although produced with no slights intended, they were of their time and would not be considered as suitable representations of the cultures that they include in the traditional musical form of the choral work. Well that needs to cut both ways.