‘My subject is war and the pity of war, The poetry is in the pity, All a poet can do today is warn.'
Wilfred Owen, from the Preface to his Poems, inscribed by Britten at the head of the score of War Requiem.
Filmed over 12 months, with unprecedented access, this landmark film follows the English National Opera as they pursue the challenge of staging Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. One of the greatest British choral works of the 20th Century, War Requiem is seen by many as a true masterpiece.
The ENO are the first company to transform the work into a dramatised performance. Artistic Director Daniel Kramer engaged a team drawn from across the world including the Turner Prize-winning artist Wolfgang Tillmans: ‘By keeping War Requiem alive and relevant today, we will be able to remember the sense of urgency that people in the post war generation felt, a sense of never again.’
For Britten, writing a piece for the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral was the opportunity he had been waiting for. The original building was destroyed during World War II. He wanted to create a powerful statement against the horrors of war, a piece that inspired reconciliation. The result was an emotionally charged piece that requires three soloists, a large choir, a children’s choir, a large orchestra, two organs as well as a chamber orchestra. Juxtaposing the traditional Latin Requiem Mass with the World War I poet Wilfred Owen’s powerful anti-war poetry, the overall effect is a powerful emotional journey.
The destruction of war is no less a significant theme now than when War Requiem was first performed. Daniel Kramer’s ambition in creating a staged version of the music was fostered by a belief that he could amplify Britten’s original intentions.
The film begins where the music itself was born – in Coventry. Wolfgang and Daniel explore the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral before moving into the vast echoing space of the new cathedral. It is a visit that becomes a critical moment in shaping their creative approach to staging the piece.
The programme follows over twelve months the development of Tillmans’s vision around three eight-metre-high LED screens forming the backdrop to the stage. He engages British fashion designer Nasir Mazhar to craft the 123 costumes and, as the vision grows, the cast grows. It is not long before the whole English National Opera family has joined this momentous journey. We witness the design discussions, costume-making and set builds, sculpture-making, movement rehearsals and snow tests, and last, but definitely not least, the orchestra rehearsals.
Working alongside the design team is celebrated conductor and ENO Music Director, Martyn Brabbins. His role could be seen as the guardian of the music. ‘It really is a masterpiece. My job as a conductor is to serve the composer. My whole life has been spent understanding what composers mean and how they want their music to be presented.’
As the production edges nearer the Coliseum’s stage, the cast widens to include three soloists, a chorus of 80 men and women, and a 40-strong children’s choir.
Revered baritone Roddy Williams, tenor David Butt Philips and soprano Emma Bell lead the singers in this unique journey. They reveal what War Requiem means to them, how the process they have been involved in has affected their understanding of the piece, and their thoughts about war and violence today. Preparing for his solo in the Dies Irae, Roddy tells us, ‘In that moment I understood with great clarity what it is like to have the power in the room because you are holding a weapon.’
Just one week before they share their work with the world, the ENO’s War Requiem moves to the London Coliseum. Once on stage, all the elements must come together and work seamlessly including the eight-metre high LED screens, a vast wasteland sculpture on wheels, not to mention the 123 ‘bodies of war’. Daniel, Wolfgang and Martyn all look on as the vision starts to become a reality for the very first time.
Finally, when all the moving pieces are working together, we are backstage with the performers as they prepare to perform on the first night. And, as the finished production opens, we experience first-hand what it feels like to stage the masterpiece that is War Requiem.