Opera-ballet on an epic scale: Opera and Ballett Zürich in Messa da Requiem

Opera House, Zürich
Film, recorded December 2016.

Maggie Foyer

In Holy Week and at a time of increased awareness of our own mortality it seems right for Zürich Opera House to screen Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. It is a work of epic scale, written for double chorus, soloists and large orchestra. Verdi brings such drama to the solemn mass that it cries out for the added company of dancers. Christian Spuck directs the singers and dancers with inherent theatricality and a sure hand and effectively using all the design elements that the theatre can offer, he brings the work rapturously to life.

The religious associations of hell and damnation are in the text, but it is the universal emotions that face all humanity in the presence of death that come to the fore. The sorrow of loss, fear of the unknown, anger at the frailty of the human condition and acceptance of a higher spirituality all have their place as Verdi structures his score with operatic flair.

Ballett Zurich and the Junior Ballet in Christian Spuck's Messa da RequiemPhoto Carlos Quezada
Ballett Zurich and the Junior Ballet in Christian Spuck’s Messa da Requiem
Photo Carlos Quezada

It is Yen Han and Filipe Portugal who embody the spiritual heights. Her quiet figure, in a pale slip dress, appears as the turbulent chorus part. Themes of absolution and harmony are explored in their duets, the first of falling and catching motifs while the second, the Agnus Dei, is all intertwining arms that only briefly unlock. In the final moments, as soprano Krassimira Stoyanova pleads for eternal rest, Han runs forward to be swept into the air by Portugal, their body language taking the emotion into realms beyond the reach of words.

The chorus are at their most thrilling in the crashing chords of the Dies irae (Day of Wrath). Over one hundred singers and dancers take to the stage pulsing like a dark and dangerous sea or punching the air with their fists. They run back and forth across the stage even climbing the proscenium arch as though attempting to reach heaven itself. William Moore is a solo figure in front. Splattered with black dirt and semi-naked, he embodies the fury in dance, writhing and twisting into contorted shapes like a tormented soul in purgatory. It’s brutal, powerful stuff.

Giulia Tonelli (with Esteban Berlanga and Daniel Mulligan) in Messa da RequiemPhoto Carlos Quezada
Giulia Tonelli (with Esteban Berlanga and Daniel Mulligan) in Messa da Requiem
Photo Carlos Quezada

The setting is minimal and sombre. Martin Gebhardt’s chiaroscuro lighting, dramatically catches the flesh tones amidst the dark costumes. This works to great effect in Ingemisco, the appeal for contrition sung by tenor, Francesco Meli. The female dancers face upstage, the light catching their bare backs, while the camera moves closer to feature their pleading hands. Emma Ryott’s costumes are as ever, extraordinary. The simplest of tunics or dresses contrast fulsome ballerina skirts, black suited men are stripped down to underwear: the vision always enhancing the emotion.

The four soloist singers, their voices interwoven with the chorus or in thrilling arias, interact with the dancers. In Tuba Mirum and Liber scriptus, voices and movement are effectively commingled.  Giulia Tonelli in a glittery slip of a dress is the essence of fragility, contrasting with the men in black suits and soaring like a spirit as they transport her in aerial lifts. Bass, Georg Zeppenfeld, takes her hand as he leaves after his sombre aria. In the following solo, mezzo-soprano Veronica Simeoni, is joined by the male dancers as they mirror her arm position then continue to link their arms in serpentine patterns.

Spuck’s choreography finds many moods. There is pointe work and classical elegance for Katje Wünsche in her soul-searching trio with Matthew Knight and Manuel Renard. With the Lacrimosa comes a measure of peace in an exquisite double duet: Wünsche with Moore and Anna Khamzina with Alexander Jones.

The work reaches its emotional depth in Verdi’s very personal and intensely dramatic: Libera me. The thrilling voice of soprano, Stoyanova, her dark dress, breaking into a voluminous train of black tulle, sets the mood of foreboding and apprehension. The final mood is of resignation and acceptance as Stoyanova softly intones the last line, ‘deliver me’, as darkness embraces the stage. The iron fire curtain descends revealing a small figure in foetal coil tucked between the metal bars. Birth and death are joined in one eternal cycle in this monumental production.

Spuck’s Messa da Requiem is best savoured in a dark auditorium in the company of a rapt audience but in these extraordinary times of isolation, the home screening needs to be viewed in one 90-minute sitting of total immersion to let the majesty: the triumph of art over death, play out.