Even before the performance started at Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday night, you knew something special was about to take place. The stage was empty – no swarming musicians straggling into their seats, no cacophonous tuning – a silent stage set for an orchestra and chorus, with 13 chairs arrayed against the back wall, spotlights in the front, two mysterious platforms stage left and right. One realized instantly how much drama and anticipation could be built out of these slight alterations in the traditional concert-going experience. Something powerful was about to happen – a semi-staged performance of Mozart’s Requiem, his last composition, part of the TSO’s Mozart@260 Festival.
A good deal, but not all, of that potential was realized on Thursday night. You might think Mozart’s Requiem would be a natural for a form of dramatic presentation, since the music he wrote for it is so intensely dramatic, almost operatic. But the drama in a Requiem mass is theological rather than human – it is the drama of the acceptance and confirmation of faith in the face of faith’s greatest challenge – death. Grief animates the Requiem, but it is not its subject.
But grief in all its manifestations – suffering, anger, acceptance, consolation – was the prime focus for the many tableaux and movements – many of them quite beautiful – that Joel Ivany, one of the most talented opera directors in the country, created for his staging of the piece. With a group of four soloists, representing us as individuals and a choir, representing the community, it made perfect sense, as Ivany skillfully did, to showcase the range of human reactions to our most traumatic circumstance.
But sometimes these two dramas – the drama in the music, and the drama on stage – worked at cross-purposes on Thursday, and tended to cancel each other out rather than reinforce each other. This is always the danger for a hybrid presentation like this one, because our concentration must be unified for these hybrids to work, and when it is split, the artistic power of the whole can slip.
Musically, Bernard Labadie coaxed a fine performance from his TSO musicians, but the ensemble seemed to lack the overwhelming polish and power that they had shown last week in Labadie’s first program for the Festival, featuring the Jupiter Symphony. Labadie has the measure of this music built into his DNA, and when his musical vision emerged with complete purity, revelation ensued. His soloists were uniformly excellent – Lydia Teuscher has a brilliant consoling soprano, Allyson McHardy a burnished mezzo, and tenor Frédéric Antoun and bass/baritone Philippe Sly added musical drama to the proceedings. As it turned out, the soloists carried most of the dramatic action on stage, and they managed to do so and sing their parts with equal skill.
Memorizing the score of Mozart’s Requiem is no easy feat for any chorister, as the choir performs most of the music in the piece, and it is a tribute to the combined forces of the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers that they managed to perform the piece off book, without a score.
However, I wonder if the extra concentration needed for that memorization took a bit of focus that might have been expended on the music. The choir seemed to lack a certain brilliance at times, and a lack of rhythmic discipline in the more complex choral passages. Mozart puts immense pressure on his choir in this piece – they need to be angelic at one moment, furious at the very next, triumphant, grief-stricken – everything. When you add movement to their tasks for the evening and memorization as well, it’s a tall order.
The Toronto Symphony and all involved are to be highly commended for staging this fascinating event. They are on the exact right track with innovative evenings like the one we witnessed on Thursday. Setting the stakes higher than usual, experimenting with form and content, especially when success is not guaranteed, is just what classical music needs to ensure its continued liveliness and relevance. I didn’t think everything worked on Thursday – but I wouldn’t have missed the performance for the world.
The TSO performs Mozart’s Requiem on Jan. 22 and 23 at Roy Thomson Hall (tso.ca).Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: