Adelaide Festival 2020 Review: Requiem

Image credit: Adelaide Festival Centre

What: Requiem, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart* and directed by Romeo Castellucci

When: 1 March 5pm, 3 March 7.30pm, 4 March 6pm

Where: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre

How much: $60 (student C reserve) – $289 (premium) (SOLD OUT)

In the 2020 Adelaide Festival’s opera centrepiece, Italian director, playwright and designer Romeo Castellucci takes on Mozart’s Requiem. Bringing together an impressive array of performers, including the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Australian Dance Theatre, a choir of 36 and soloists including Siobhan Stagg (soprano), Sara Mingardo (alto), Martin Mitterrutzner (tenor), and David Greco (bass), and staged in the Festival Theatre, this is a production of truly grand scale.

The show opens in darkness as overlapping sound bites of male Australian politicians play (even upon reflection the following day, I am unsure of the meaning of this sequence). ScoMo et al are cut off when a grey-haired woman switches off the TV and, after a couple of melancholy minutes, tucks herself into bed and then slowly disappears. Now we have witnessed a death, and the requiem can begin. Recalling that a requiem is traditionally a prayer for the souls of the dead, Castellucci presents an extended meditation on aging, death and extinction.  

This is an ambitious and unorthodox production. As an audience, we are transported from a suburban bedroom into a kind of fantasia possibly based on European pagan death and rebirth rituals. The singers frequently move around the stage in precisely choreographed formations, holding their own among professional dancers. At the same time, an ‘Atlas of Extinctions’ — a long list of extinct animals, lakes, peoples, cities, languages, and more — is projected on the back wall of the stage, perhaps functioning as a comment on how we feel individual loss and mortality so keenly yet retain a distant attitude to the thousands of tragedies that happened before our birth and will continue after our death. Eventually, even the structure of the stage itself, previously sullied by dirt, paint, and discarded clothing, begins to disintegrate, as if the production is eating itself alive. Oh, and there’s Mozart*. Between the surtitles, the atlas, the choreography, and the set, the music sometimes seemed almost incidental and forgotten as I tried to absorb it all.

I’ll admit that my first reaction when the house lights went up was that the production was just a bit too avant-garde and, well, strange. Why not let a performance of one of the most acclaimed and beloved pieces of choral music in the Western canon just be what it is? Doesn’t the beauty of the music speak for itself?

In addition, I would argue that the research behind the ‘Atlas of Extinctions’ was sloppy, sometimes to the point of being potentially offensive. I think that the Lakota people, for one, would not be pleased to be described as an “extinct people”, while the 287,000-odd residents of Fukushima might be surprised to learn that they live in an “extinct city”.

Nevertheless, I have found that Requiem is an experience that rewards closer engagement and interrogation of its many layers. For me, although the entire package didn’t quite come together, there were certainly moments of sublime beauty, where Castellucci’s boundary-pushing vision enhanced the music rather than overwhelming it. It’s certainly a version of Requiem that those who see it won’t forget.  

3.5 out of 5 stars

Matilda Handsley-Davis

*Footnotes seem to be a theme for me this year — I feel I should note that Mozart died without finishing this piece and it was subsequently completed by another composer, Franz Xaver Süssmayr.

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