Fabio Luisi / Philharmonia Zurich / Ballett Zürich
Giuseppe Verdi: Messa da Requiem
Ballet Production, Zurich Opera, 2016-12
Media Received for Review
2017-10-30 — Minor expansions / additions (incl. images, trailer)
In December 2016, the Zurich Opera House brought out a fantastic ballet performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, directed by the choreographer Christian Spuck. I have not been able to attend these performances: I was busy with other concerts and the associated reviews. But my colleague Sarah Batschelet did review the performance on 2016-12-04 for Bachtrack. That was a 5-star review—well-deserved, as far as I can tell from the DVD!
However, I was fortunate enough to receive the DVD below for reviewing! That is not the same as a live performance: the live atmosphere can hardly be captured in a video production. On the other hand, a video production does have advantages over a live performance (I’ll discuss this in some detail below). In addition, the DVD includes very interesting bonus material, so even if one had attended one of the performances, it’s still definitely worth having the DVD!
Fabio Luisi, Philharmonia Zürich
Ballett Zürich; Choreography: Christian Spuck
Chor und Zusatzchor der Oper Zürich
Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano
Veronica Simeoni, mezzo-soprano
Francesco Meli, tenor
Georg Zeppenfeld, bass
Accentus Music ACC20392 (DVD, 16:9 NTSC, Region Code: 0 / worldwide); © 2017
Audio-format: PCM stereo / Dolby Digital 5.1 / dts 5.1
Booklet: 48 pp. de/en/fr
—Buy DVD from amazon—
The production is also available on Blu-ray disk (ACC10392)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) composed his Messa da Requiem in memory of the famous Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni (1785 – 1873). The first performance took place in 1874, one year after Manzoni’s death. It’s one of the biggest settings of the catholic funeral mass ever, requiring a large orchestra (3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 8 trumpets, 3 trombones, Ophicleide, timpani, bass drum, strings), four soloists and double choir. The composition is well-known, so I don’t spend more text on describing it. I include a track listing below, though. This gives an outline of the structure.
Rather than writing up details about the artists’ biographies, I’m referring to the linked pages, where available:
- Conductor: Fabio Luisi (*1959)
- Orchestra: Philharmonia Zurich
- Choir and Extra Choir of the Zurich Opera (Chorus Master: Marcovalerio Marletta)
- Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano (see also Wikipedia)
- Veronica Simeoni, mezzo-soprano
- Francesco Meli, tenor
- Georg Zeppenfeld, bass
Ballet, Direction, etc.
- Christian Spuck, choreography & stage design (see also Wikipedia)
- Ballet: Ballett Zürich. Sadly, the DVD enclosure does not mention any of the excellent ballet soloists. Sarah Batschelet’s Bachtrack review does mention a few. The captions during the curtain calls do mention the soloists, though (in the order of their appearance during the applause, which tends to stage the key roles last):
- Matthew Knight
- Manuel Renard
- Anna Khamzina
- Alexander Jones
- Mélissa Ligurgo
- Katja Wünsche
- Giulia Tonelli
- William Moore
- Yen Han
- Filipe Portugal
- Set Designer: Christian Schmidt
- Costume Designer: Emma Ryott
- Lighting Designer: Martin Gebhardt
- Dramaturgy: Michael Küster; Claus Spahn
Track Listing — Main Video:
- Opening credits (1’10”)
- I. Requiem (10’06”)
- II. Dies Irae (2’39”)
- Tuba mirum (3’28”)
- Liber scriptus (5’23”)
- Quid sum miser (3’43”)
- Rex tremendae (3’47”)
- Recordare (3’56”)
- Ingemisco (3’37”)
- Confutatis (5’18”)
- Lacrimosa (7’30”)
- III. Offertorio (10’24”)
- Domine Jesu
- IV. Sanctus (2’29”)
- V. Agnus Dei (5’27”)
- VI. Lux aeterna (6’58”)
- Libera me
- Dies irae
- Requiem aeternam
- Libera me
- VII. Libera me (14’14”)
- Curtain Calls & Closing Credits (6’05”)
Total running time: 96’11” (Actual Performance: 89 minutes)
- “Stepping into the unknown — Christian Spuck’s production of Verdi’s Requiem” (57’12”)
A film by Jürg Gautschi
The bonus material is half English (interaction with ballet dancers and other personnel) and half-German (interview with Christian Spuck)—captioning is available in German, English, French, and Japanese.
Performance and Recording
Naturally, with a ballet production, dancing and staging are and should be the central aspects of the performance. I should point out., however, that I’m not a ballet expert. The number of live (pure) ballet performances that I have experienced is very small. And these few performances are far in the past. I actually only remember two performances:
- one at the Royal Opera House in London, 1979, featuring (among other compositions) Johannes Brahms’ “Liebesliederwalzer“
- one at the Zurich Opera House, in the time between 1976 and 1981, featuring (again, amongst other compositions) Paul Hindemith’s “Four temperaments”
1986 – 2013, my job didn’t really allow regular visits to concert halls or opera houses. So, given my poor track record in attending ballet performances, I’ll discuss the audio aspect first.
Familiarity with the Composition?
I should mention, that I haven’t listened to Verdi’s Messa da Requiem in many years (I don’t have a CD recording, and I haven’t listened to LPs in decades). However, I am very familiar with the work. I have—and still remember well—LP recordings. I have even participated in a performance, as a member of the Zurich Bach Choir, on 1976-04-11. For details on these “references” see the appendix at the bottom of the posting. That active participation has certainly burned more than just the choir parts into my brain, and so, I also know very well where the tricky parts, the challenges are for the choir.
Audio (Orchestra, Choir, Singers)
Naturally, in a video production, the main attention and focus is on the visual aspect. That’s particularly true if the orchestra is located in a pit, and especially in a ballet production. On the other hand, my “history” with this work is a listening and self-participating one, which makes it hard, if not impossible, to focus solely on the visual aspect. In other words: invariably, I’m comparing what I hear with the “references” that pre-exist in my memory. So:
I have heard the orchestra of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, in numerous concerts. I expected nothing but an excellent performance. Of course, the fact that the orchestra is playing in a pit, even ignoring the “visual distraction”, makes it much harder to obtain “eye confirmation” on the orchestra’s attention and engagement. On top of that, the video production almost exclusively focuses on the stage. The few glimpses that one can catch of the audience—during the applause—already exceed what one can see from the orchestra. I only remember briefly seeing the musicians when the ensemble accepts the applause.
Still: the orchestra performance appears flawless. I don’t remember a single hiccup. Naturally, I should say, not only because of the orchestra’s qualities, but possibly also because both the audio and the video trail must have been the result from recording and combining several performances. In that sense, the video is not comparable to a live ballet performance. But my experience tells me that the audio track is representative of any true live performance with the ensemble—compelling throughout.
Fabio Luisi can not only look back to a wealth of opera conducting experience. He is also an excellent orchestra conductor in general. And he has an excellent feel for the “right” tempo, and for how to make transitions. Both these aspects are crucial here, of course, as the ballet can’t create a perfect performance if the tempo or the transitions aren’t “right”.
However, it isn’t just for the ballet-related restrictions that the music sounds all “natural” throughout. Fabio Luisi avoids excesses and exaggerations of any kind, nothing is overly bombastic. Of course, Luisi retains the sense for operatic drama that is inherent with Verdi’s composition, and which of course ideally suits a ballet performance in the opera house.
Luisi’s statement at the end of the bonus track is absolutely credible: he states (to Christian Spuck) that this is the most beautiful—or most moving—production that he has done in the thirty years of his career, indicating that he, too, was moved to tears over it.
The role of the choir is central to this work. Besides the orchestra, it’s the choir which “sets the stage for the ear”, from the mysterious beginning through dramatic segments such as the “Dies irae“, up to the virtuosic fugue in the final “Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda“. The Zurich Opera Choir is professional, intonation never is an issue in this production, articulation, choir coloraturas, diction and understandability are excellent.
That the singers are professional is apparent immediately, not just from the quality of the voices, but also from the amount of vibrato applied. However, in the actual performance, this is largely inconspicuous and absolutely fits the character of the piece. It’s only in the bonus material (irrelevant for the main part of the video), where occasionally—through close-up microphones—the vibrato sounds rather excessive. And yes, compared to a good oratorio choir, the opera choir occasionally appears a tad on the heavy side. But I think this is in the nature of an opera choir (and suits the repertoire that such ensembles normally perform).
Stage vs. Church or Concert Hall
The task for the choir is challenging enough already from the score. But here, the choir becomes part of the stage production. The singers are wearing costumes (see below), they need to move around, and often, the ballet dancers act from within the choir. One could claim that this is nothing unusual for an opera choir: they are used to coordinating with assistant conductors or off-stage video prompting.
However, as a requiem / (religious) mass, this needs to stand a comparison with performances in a church, or in a concert hall. And these have the advantage of a much closer spatial link between orchestra / conductor and the choir. And the choir needs to coordinate not just visually with the gestures of the conductor, but also through “auditive queues”, i.e., by listening to the sound of the orchestra. Any added distance makes this task more challenging.
The “slightly heavy nature” of an opera choir aggravates the effect of the distance to conductor and orchestra. The one, single moment when one could feel the coordination challenge is in the utterly demanding final fugue “Libera me, Domine“, which has fairly “shaky moments”. But I suspect that for most of the audience this was not evident. That’s not just because of the “visual distraction”: knowing about the challenges in this last piece (from personal experience), that fugue naturally draws my “insider attention” onto potential coordination “mis-haps”.
The soloists are excellent, almost throughout:
The soprano has a stunning voice: dramatic, but still with natural vibrato that one expects for a voice with this character, amazing range and volume, from the highest peak notes down to the mezzo-soprano (if not alto!) range, e.g., in the final piece, with the almost spoken, recitativic (senza misura) “Libera me, Domine“!
The mezzo-soprano has equally impressive volume, and an excellent, darkish timbre. Sadly, for my taste, her vibrato is sometimes too heavy. It’s heavy and strong enough occasionally to affect her intonation. In the “Lux aeterna” she has a tendency towards low intonation. Interestingly, the rehearsal snippets in the bonus track are much better in that respect. Maybe she wasn’t quite in optimum physical condition in the live performance?
Another, very impressive voice! Verdi does not skip any possible challenge for the soloists. This part requires a strong, operatic Heldentenor voice. And Francesco Meli is fitting this role very well! His voice is brilliant, shining, extremely well-projecting, effortlessly reaches the highest peak notes, yet is flexible enough to suit the character of this work. The intensity of his voice and his messa di voce in both the “Ingemisco” and the “Ostias” are truly outstanding!
The bass completes the team with his dark, deep and full bass voice. Making himself heard from the back of the stage and through the choir does not appear to be the slightest challenge for this singer: compare this to a concert of church performance where the soloists are typically either at the front of the podium, next to the conductor, or at least right behind the orchestra. Even just his “Mors stupebit et natura“—like a recitative, almost spoken, “into the void”, is impressive!
Overall: a world-class team of soloists that does not need to hide behind historic reference recordings!
Ballet / Direction
A Funeral Mass as Ballet?
Right at the onset, before even I started viewing, it was clear to me that making a ballet from Verdi’s Messa da Requiem is a giant challenge. A challenge with giant traps. This becomes obvious also from Christian Spuck’s interview on the bonus track:
- depicting religious content is very sensitive, may easily be seen as blasphemous
- at the same time, there is a great danger of religious visualization appearing trivial, simplistic, naïve. Even with the best intent, it may still insult a (religious) viewer’s mind.
And even if one were to consider a religious interpretation: as Christian Spuck explains, the text of the requiem is entirely built on traditional (I’m tempted to say: medieval) catholic beliefs and frameworks. It is essentially building a giant threatening scenario of what was (then) seen as potential (or real) life-after-death options, including purgatory, the horrors of hell, the day of wrath. Yes, there is also the plea for forgiveness, the aspect of hope for salvation. But translating any (let alone all) of this into pictures on a stage faces enormous difficulties and challenges, hence was considered not an option.
Decisions by the Stage Direction
Christian Spuck states (not a literal quote): “I don’t know what comes after death. Ideally, maybe coming to a close, finding rest. Maybe there’s nothing at all? Darkness?”. On top of that, many members of the audience are not religious (maybe even a majority, these days?). So, Spuck firmly stated that he did not want to build upon the religious aspect at all. Definitely, he wanted to avoid building upon the threatening scenario in the liturgic text altogether. It’s for good reason why the interview in the bonus track bears the title “Stepping into the unknown“.
He actually wanted to avoid any concrete pictures, religious or not. Moreover, he decided to work with an essentially empty stage, abstract, even without props, with the exception of a table and chairs for some scenes. Even these few props were done in a very neutral design (“not telling a story” by themselves, as the choreographer explains). The costumes are also very simple, neutral, minimal, often skin-toned, partially transparent, or in covered colors. No tutu, no traditional dancing en pointe.
Soloists and choir are part of the scenery, the production, they often play with the dancers. Other times, the choir is more in the dark / on the sides, becomes part of the scenery.
What is the Ballet Telling?
Rather than telling a story (or: stories), Christian Spuck wanted to express (“pure”) human emotions around the theme of death in very general terms. These might include fear, loneliness, mourning, despair, sadness, hope, rebellion, helplessness, fight, pain, loss, consolation, failing, seeking help, trying to escape fate, dying, letting go. All actions remain symbolic, essentially require the viewer & listener to fill them with imagination, with spontaneous associations.
One small example: in the early part of the production, there are some group ballet scenes that appear to depict an abstract machinery. My personal association was that of the human inexorably being caught in the contraptions of modern day-to-day life. But it may be that Spuck also (or rather) depicts the inexorability of death, the aspect that death is a process beyond a human’s control, in other words: the helplessness of a human when facing death??
Consequently, i.e., to reinforce the imaginative aspect, for most of the production, the scenery is dark, somber at least in the corners. Nevertheless, the lighting is cleverly done, very subtle. Around the beginning, an on-stage projector / light source serves to create interesting shadow effects.
And the Dancing?
The dancing by both corps de ballet as well as by the soloists is superb, needless to say. I don’t want to describe too much of the scenes, because
- I’m not a trained, let alone experienced ballet reviewer, so I lack the vocabulary,
- I don’t want to spoil the experience by being too descriptive,
- There is a temptation to add photos from the production (e.g., from the DVD booklet). I decided not to, for the same reasons.
And, after all, Sarah Batschelet’s review for Bachtrack does include some pictures, in case you are interested in a sneak preview.
Video / Camera
In a live performance in the opera, the visitor is free to look at (the visible part of) the orchestra pit, to let his eye capture the totality of the stage, or rather to focus on details, such as individual dancers, of particular parts of the scenery. Of course, (s)he can let the view wander around in the audience, trying to capture as much of the “live opera atmosphere” as possible. It is impossible to combine all this in a video production. Hence, the video direction is forced to make choices. In this case, these choices were
- ignoring the presence of the audience, except for moments in the final applause
- not showing the orchestra, except for moments during the applause, hence
- entirely focusing on what’s happening on the stage, and
- within that, not trying to capture the totality of the stage at all times, but to zoom into details, such as individual dancers or couples of dancers, vocal soloists.
- Unusual views & angles, such as from the top balcony or from the ceiling were avoided completely.
In addition, for a live production it was of course not possible or desirable to have moving cameras on the stage; all (or virtually all) of the performance was captured with cameras either from the back or the sides of the audience (or possibly from the orchestra pit?).
The video direction was excellent. I’m quite allergic to frequent, nervous, let alone rhythmic camera (/ angle, view) switching. There was never a moment in this production where view switching seemed excessively frequent, nervous or otherwise irritating in any way.
Film Reality vs. Stage Reality
To summarize the above: I was extremely pleased with the video capturing! However, given the above direction choices, I needed to remind myself of two things:
- with major parts of the video showing only fractions of the screen (i.e., details such as individual dancers or singers), there are parts of the production which were deliberately left out from the video. Capturing the entire stage at all times and at the same time trying to show such details would have required a split-screen production (overlays, inserts or otherwise splitting the view), which would have ruined the atmosphere, the spirit of the production. I’m happy that this was avoided. So, the video experience is definitely excellent, but also different. Just one little detail: in the first part, there were props on stage that can briefly be seen in the bonus track (dry shrubbery, more symbolic than real) that one does not see in the main video. One just sees the hole in the floor being closed, and one might wonder what its purpose was.
- I wouldn’t even call this a quibble, as the video is capturing plenty of zoomed views that in a live experience one can never capture (at least not in that much detail).
The bonus material on the DVD is an extensive, very interesting interview with the choreographer, Christian Spuck, a 57-minute film recorded for the Swiss TV, SRF. In the interview, Christian Spuck explains how he arrived at the choreography for this production. The choreographer explains his working philosophy, and how he approaches the choreography to Verdi’s Requiem. The film also shows how he works with the ballet, from the preparations through rehearsals, dress rehearsal, and the actual performance(s).
It’s extremely interesting, not just because it shows how a ballet works “behind the scenes”, how it arrives at a final production, but also because it provides essential insights into Spuck’s views and interpretation of this work. A must-see! One of the most interesting aspects to me as a layman is that Spuck goes into the rehearsals with a rough idea about the choreography. He then develops the rest together with the dancers. And the result keeps changing up till close to the premiere, the fine tuning only occurs at the very final stages, when the orchestra is participating as well.
The text in the DVD enclosure is an extended version of the interview with Christian Spuck.
Note that the rapid cutting is of course only used in the trailer — it is by no means characteristic for the actual video.
Conclusions / Recommendation
In conclusion, I would state the obvious: that both the live experience, as well as the video have their specific advantages and benefit. Neither one should be seen as a substitute for the other. I really, really enjoyed the video—and I regret not having spared the time to experience this in a live performance last year! Strongly recommended!
I have written more about the music than on the ballet aspect. That’s merely because I’m used to commenting on music performances, but I simply lack the language, the vocabulary to write about ballet. It’s a visual art, after all. Plus, my colleague, who has addended the live performance on 2016-12-04, has already (very well) described the visual aspect in her review. I find both the ballet, as well as the music performance equally fascinating, interesting, appealing, compelling, fascinating!
Just a minor warning / heads-up: don’t expect any religious connotation on the ballet part. Rather, try to be open, to let the pictures, the scenes work on you, let them evoke pictures in your fantasy. Let your mind, soul and spirit dive into the pictures, delve in the scenery. You won’t be disappointed. And of course: even the music / audio part alone makes this a rich and valuable experience!
Appendix: Legacy Recordings / Performances
Just as an explanation on “where I come from” in this review, let me mention the recordings that I “grew up with” between 1975 and around 1985:
- Arturo Toscanini, NBC Symphony Orchestra, Robert Shaw Chorale (direction: Robert Shaw); Herva Nelli (soprano), Fedora Barbieri (mezzo-soprano), Giuseppe di Stefano (tenor), Cesare Siepi (bass) — live recording, 1951-01-27
- Sir George Solti, Vienna Philharmonic, Chorus of the Vienna State Opera (direction: Wilhelm Pitz); Joan Sutherland (soprano), Marilyn Horne (mezzo-soprano), Luciano Pavarotti (tenor), Martti Talvela (bass) — Teldec, ℗ 1972
I haven’t listened to these in decades, so even though they are definitely reference recordings, I’m not commenting of endorsing them at this point. Just for the record: I also have an LP with the performance in which I participated (by coincidence on my birthday!):
- Peter Eidenbenz, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Zürcher Bach-Chor and Glarner Kammerchor; Anna Alexieva (soprano), Carol Smith (mezzo-soprano), Luigi Lega (tenor), Anton Diakov (bass) — live recording, 1976-04-11.