So it was with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation that I arrived at Roy Thomson Hall on Saturday evening to hear the Toronto Symphony’s “semi-staged” Mozart Requiem. However, I’m happy to report that the performance didn’t deserve any of the nasty adjectives above. Instead, the whole thing was rather pleasant.
For the occasion, the TSO was joined by a mix of choristers from the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Amadeus Choir. (This choir of about 40 singers was prepared by Lydia Adams.) The soloists were soprano Lydia Teuscher, mezzo Allyson McHardy, tenor Frédéric Altoun and bass-baritone Philippe Sly.
Right from the beginning, Stage director Joel Ivany focused on the ritualistic aspects of the Requiem. Or, more accurately, he did this even before the piece began, by having the choir and orchestra solemnly walk on stage and take their positions. As a musical accompaniment to this drawn-out action, TSO principal clarinettist Joaquin Valdepeñas and a quartet of string players gave a lovely performance of the second movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet.
Once the Requiem began, the stage action consisted mostly of soloists wandering about, or striking various poses of distress. On occasion, the chorus was required make gestures en masse with their arms and hands – such as a reaching-and-beseeching motion or a fists-in-air salute.
Décor was similarly minimal, consisting of a number of comfy old chairs scattered around the stage, and some soft “mood” lighting. Conspicuously absent were scores in the hands of the choristers. They had memorized their music.
In the midst of it all sat conductor Bernard Labadie. He’s an early-music man – the founder of Quebec City’s Les Violons du Roy – and his small-is-beautiful sensibility permeated the performance. Under Labadie, this Requiem was fluid and organic. Textures were clear and transparent. And dynamics were carefully controlled and generally kept within modest boundaries. Labadie’s efforts to bring subtle nuances to the performance were no doubt aided by the fact that his chorus never had their noses buried in their scores.
The greatest strength of this Requiem was its four soloists. A chain with no weak link, they shone in their solos, and blended beautifully in ensemble. Bravi!
At the outset of the evening, the orchestra’s CEO, Jeff Melanson, came on stage to announce that it was the TSO’s goal to become “the world’s most innovative orchestra.” Yet as a step in this direction, this performance was a baby step. It was a success, as far as it went – but it didn’t go very far.
Ivany may have been reluctant to do more with his staging, for fear of offending purists. Or perhaps he simply didn’t have any ideas of a more substantial or daring nature to offer his audience. At the end of the evening, the question of how best to effectively semi-stage a Mozart Requiem seemed only semi-answered.
Still, with this effort, I feel that the TSO is barking up the right tree. I hope it is followed by other more impressive, involved and profound transformations of the concert experience.
© Colin Eatock 2016