• Soprano Eleanor Lyons with ensemble. Photo by Andrew Beveridge.
    Soprano Eleanor Lyons with ensemble. Photo by Andrew Beveridge.
  • A scene from 'Messa da Requiem'. Photo by Andrew Beveridge.
    A scene from 'Messa da Requiem'. Photo by Andrew Beveridge.
  • A scene from 'Messa da Requiem'. Photo by Andrew Beveridge.
    A scene from 'Messa da Requiem'. Photo by Andrew Beveridge.

Ballet Zurich
with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Adelaide Festival Chorus
Festival Theatre, Adelaide

Reviewed March 8 

Verdi's Messa da Requiem (Requiem Mass) is a much-lauded musical masterpiece, a triumph from the day it premiered in 1874. Written for a double choir, four soloists and orchestra, and 90 minutes long, a performance is always an event, partly because of the sheer numbers involved. Divided into seven parts based on the Catholic sacred texts, Verdi's meditation on death is bleak, with little sense of salvation. It is a dark vision, but, being Verdi, is also gloriously melodic and harmonious, from the fierce Dies Irae to the lyrical Agnus Dei. 

For this production, choreographer Christian Spuck has combined the musicians (the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the Adelaide Festival Chorus) with his own ballet company of 36 dancers, making for a truly spectacular undertaking.

As one who is familiar with the Requiem, however, I couldn't help wondering, what more can be gained by adding another layer to what is already a huge and perfect work? Will I enjoy having what is already a satisfyingly complete and intense listening experience transformed into something more visual, and another person's vision at that?

The answer is that Spuck's production, at its best, unleashes the oratorio's operatic and theatrical potential. It liberates the musicians from their usual fixed positions on stage, standing and holding their musical scores, and lets them act out the emotions and bring out the meaning of the Latin text. The work takes on a greater narrative quality; a sense of movement from life to death.

Spuck's production is set in a plain, dark, crypt-like space, with high stony walls and some kind of black debris scattered on the floor. The costuming is also mostly black, in keeping with the usual black choral attire and the theme of death, relieved by burnt orange or a warm cream for the dancers. 

The choreography is particularly effective in the group scenes. The choir moves around en masse, like an opera chorus, sometimes blending with the dancers. They lean forward to spit out venomous words; other times they form sculptural shapes, their white hands and faces a striking but simple contrast in the dark. There is no obvious religious allusion or iconography, though some scenes hint distantly at religious paintings and compositions.

The four soloist singers (Eleanor Lyons, Caitlin Hulcup, Paul O'Neill and Pelham Andrews) also move around the stage as they sing, and have scope to act as human characters in a story rather than singers of a text.

The chorus, singers and dancers are woven together equally, and are on stage together for most of the sections, with the dancers giving physical embodiment to the themes. Sometimes the dancers do seem superfluous rather than integral to the whole. The choreography is lithe and hyperextended: despairing pas de deux, prone bodies held aloft and helpless, limbs often limp. There is also a sense of inevitability about their movements, a push and pull between the dancers, a reaching and straining. 

Visually, the work is often stunning. At one point the entire cast scribbles words in chalk on the walls in a break between movements: the words can't be read but the scrabble of writing is loud in the silence. At another point the dancers appear in dresses with big black tulle skirts, their white bare backs turned to the audience. But in a work which strives to respect the original score, such visual effects can be distracting rather than enhancing, such as when a very bright stage light is brought in and trained on one couple; or when modern office tables appear on the set.

As the Requiem progresses, the focus turns increasingly on a dance couple: him bearded, her with her long hair hanging loose; him in black, her in a cream dress. It ends with a poignant final image of him holding her curved droop of a body in front of him, a sad offering, front stage centre. She is perhaps a dead child.

This Messa da Requiem is the type of one-off cultural event that one hopes for in an arts festival: a seldom performed masterpiece of the repertoire, and with the added benefit of the involvement of local artists. Presenting such a huge work of such quality in presumably limited rehearsal time is an impressive achievement. Bravo to all involved. 


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