Mozart's Requiem, ENO/BBC Two, review: exquisite singing spoilt by dumbed down presentation

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connnolly and conductor Mark Wigglesworth  - Clive Barda
Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connnolly and conductor Mark Wigglesworth - Clive Barda

Along with a few other critics, I was snuck into the London Coliseum last week while English National Opera was rehearsing for this concert performance of Mozart’s Requiem. It was an eerie experience. Closed since March, the theatre’s interior looked magnificent (though vandals have recently made criminally hideous alterations to the beautiful Grade II* listed foyers designed by Frank Matcham) yet forlorn in its pristine emptiness.

What interested me most, however, was the Covid-secure layout of the musicians, spread across the entire expanse of the enormous stage, as wide as it is deep and bare of any scenery. The four soloists were seated some 15ft from each other in front of the conductor, the orchestral players were spread across the platform, and the chorus to their rear was banked in a zigzag formation to avoid transmission of spittle. The inevitable result was a thin and etiolated sound – a vivid reminder that music-making is a physically intimate business that relies on being up close and personal.

The engineers recording the television broadcast couldn’t do much to rectify this, but the high quality of the singing and playing remained evident. Mark Wigglesworth conducted the excellent orchestra with a fine sense of gravity, and the four soloists, singing without the scores customary in oratorio, could hardly be bettered: Elizabeth Llewellyn the shining soprano, Sarah Connolly the fervent mezzo, Ed Lyon the robust tenor and Gerald Finley the eloquent bass.

Perhaps crisp fugal articulation isn’t the strongest point of ENO’s chorus, but it sang throughout with impassioned commitment.

The disappointment of the occasion was the BBC’s drearily unimaginative presentation. I know that notice of this event (originally scheduled to be seen by a live audience) was fairly short and I daresay there are all sorts of restrictions at the moment of which I am unaware. But couldn’t they have done better by way of introduction than a heavily pregnant Danielle de Niese standing in the stalls evidently reading banalities off an autocue?

At the very least, surely some scholar could have been wheeled in to explain the complex history of the Requiem and point out the sections of the mass that were indisputably completed by Mozart and those that were posthumously cobbled together from sketches by his pupil Süssmayr and others. It seems very patronising of the viewers’ intelligence not to explain this: the dumbing-down of arts coverage continues.

ENO’s incoming artistic director Annilese Miskimmon also made a brief appearance, understandably looking rather harassed and unable to tell us anything about the company’s plans for reopening – the last we heard was the not altogether elating prospect of a run of the musical Hairspray starring Michael Ball. One only hopes that the extension of the furlough until March can keep the chorus and orchestra together until they can get back to full-time business.

Available to view on iPlayer now