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Requiem reinterprets Mozart for an imperilled world

Siobhan Stagg performs with the cast of Requiem at Festival d'Aix-en-Provence
Pascal Victor
Siobhan Stagg (centre right) performs with the cast of Requiem at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

The musical centrepiece of this year’s Adelaide Festival is renowned Italian theatre director Romeo Castellucci’s staging of Mozart’s Requiem which will feature one of Australia’s rising opera stars, Siobhan Stagg.

One of the major topics of interest about this year’s Adelaide Festival is what renowned Italian theatre director Romeo Castellucci will come up with in his staged version of Mozart’s Requiem. Known as a radical in the theatre world, and having fairly stunned audiences in two preceding Adelaide Festivals with Giulio Cesare (2000) and Go Down, Moses (2016), his conception of this 18th century masterwork is sure to be provocatively different. One person who knows all about it is rising Australian opera star Siobhan Stagg. She sang in the premiere of Requiem at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence last July, and the Mildura-born soprano is again in the cast when it opens in Adelaide in February.

It is no surprise, incidentally, that Stagg was handpicked for Requiem. Berlin-based and for seven years a young artist for Deutsche Oper, Stagg has been gaining strong international praise for her Mozart, particularly for her signature role of Pamina in Magic Flute, which she has performed in Salzburg, Berlin, Opera de Limoges and twice at Covent Garden. Stagg is an admired recitalist too, so her concert of songs by Poulenc, Debussy and Messiaen at Ukaria will also be of much interest come March.

First though to Castellucci’s transformation of Mozart’s Requiem. This is not the first time the work has been staged – other danced or semi-danced versions have been attempted by Sweden’s Malmö Opera (2019), France’s Insula Orchestra (2018), Poland’s Opera Wrocławska (2016) and Canada’s Toronto Symphony Orchestra (2016). However, in its interpretative layers that address species extinction, human catastrophe and the promise of rebirth, this conception is without parallel in its breadth. Castellucci’s Requiem literally becomes a work of global significance.

Siobhan Stagg
Todd Rosenberg
Siobhan Stagg

Stagg says it makes us reflect not only on our individual lives but humanity’s destiny and the future of our planet.

“I do think the theme of mortality is universal and that it is applicable all through the generations. These ideas are particularly poignant at the moment with the bushfire tragedy in Australia that we are facing. In Europe, they are really struck by what has happened and the loss of species through wildfires.”

During rehearsals at Aix-en-Provence, Castellucci worked on a number of staging ideas to gauge their effectiveness. “We had to try out a variety of props and he decided which worked best,” explains Stagg.

“One was a scene involving a car crash. Sometimes we feel our lives are metaphorically like car crashes. The work is experimental in a way that expresses all these kinds of human and natural tragedies. The cast obviously had no idea about the impending bushfires in Australia when we did it in France, but what Castellucci has conceived is so applicable to any situation.”

In Mozart’s day, a requiem was written for standard liturgical use or to honour the passing of a notable personage. However, the work we know today as the Requiem in D minor, K. 626, was left unfinished at the time of the composer’s own death in 1791. The mysterious circumstances in which he composed it – after having supposedly been visited by a secret messenger – have prompted endless conjecture ever since. The general scholarly view now is that Requiem was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg, a Viennese musical amateur at the time, following the sudden passing of his young wife earlier in the same year.

Perhaps in response to this background, Castellucci also presents us with questions of what it is like to bear grief.

“He makes us think about death but also about the ones who are left behind and who are still living,” says Stagg. “His staging reflects life moving in a backwards trajectory and loosely it tells of a person’s life in retrospect. First we see a lady lying dead in what could be a TV docudrama scene, then we trace her steps back through to babyhood and her first visions of life.

Requiem
Pascal Victor
Requiem

“We are encouraged to reflect on the whole cycle of life. At the back wall are projections of species of animals that have become extinct along with lost cultural monuments and human calamities through history. By the end it becomes philosophical.”

As to what we can expect it to look like on stage, Stagg says Requiem is accompanied throughout by dance, albeit in the broadest sense of that word. Members of the Australian Dance Theatre will be present, but in fact all four soloists plus a 36-member chorus will contribute to the staging via physical movement.

“A lot of the dance is done by the choristers,” Stagg explains. “In the original rehearsals, we didn’t realise we’d have to dance such a lot, but the expectation was not actually professional dancing. Dance in this case is ritualistic and signifies the coming together of people. We’re not doing perfect arabesques or anything – it is more about involving the whole body, not dance in the traditional sense.”

The stage itself also serves as a canvas for storytelling. Pristinely white to begin with, it becomes heavily layered with an impasto of narrative.

“Scene by scene, paint and dirt, ash and honey are gradually added,” Stagg says. “All these elements are strewn across the stage during the performance, and each night it turns out differently. When we did it in Provence for the premiere it caused quite a stir. Some will think that Mozart’s Requiem doesn’t need any form of staging, and I understand that. But people were surprised to find so much more in this staged version than they expected.”

Another striking difference about this interpretation of Mozart’s Requiem is how much extra music it contains. Thanks to the input of musical collaborator Raphaël Picho, the Süssmayr edition that they started with is significantly expanded with Gregorian plainchant and additional music of Mozart spliced into the score.

This further intensifies Requiem’s complexity as a stage work, believes Stagg. A touching moment, she says, comes when a young boy soprano sings the opening Kyrie from Mozart’s C Minor Mass in a simple, pure vocalisation – “It totally stole the audience’s hearts in Aix-en-Provence.”

Joining Stagg in Adelaide are the same cast members who sang in France: alto Sara Mingardo, tenor Martin Mitterrutzner and bass Luca Tittoto. Prominent UK conductor Rory Macdonald leads the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra over the four nights – he has appeared once before with the ASO in Elgar’s Enigma Variations in 2013.

For those heading up to Ukaria at Festival time, another reward lies in wait when Stagg presents her all-French recital with pianist Timothy Young. Nested within Marshall McGuire’s Composer & Citizen: Chamber Landscapes series, her program explores different facets of amore up close and personal. She says she is particularly looking forward to trying it out in Ukaria’s acclaimed concert hall.

“I love singing in French and am doing a lot at the moment,” she says. “Messiaen wrote his Poèmes pour Mi for his first wife and it is typical of the composer in its birdsong influences and irregular rhythms. They are wonderfully intricate. Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées have been with me for 12 years, and I recorded them last year in Berlin with Noga Quartet. Poulenc’s Fiançailles pour rire are about love but in a way that you might describe as either facetious and comical or really serious. The delight is that one never quite knows which – he is indeed a very intelligent clown.”

28 February – 4 March

Adelaide Festival:
Requiem

Graham Strahle

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