‘I keep wanting to close my eyes and just listen to the music’: Mozart’s Requiem is magnificent, but Romeo Castelluci’s visuals leave Robert Reid cold
I should preface this by saying I’m no real fan of Castellucci’s work. For all its precise, epic staging and often gory iconography, I find the outcome curiously bloodless. I recognise the artfulness, but I’m fairly ambivalent, which I think reflects the ambivalence of the work itself. That said, on to what I thought of his Requiem.
Worse than that, preachy bullshit.
Worse even that that: lazy, preachy bullshit.
Castellucci’s staging of Mozart’s Requiem (one of the most moving of the composer’s works, which was incomplete when he died and has patchwork additions by Franz Xavier Sussmayr) sits alongside the music rather than embodying it. It takes the Requiem as an opportunity to address the climate emergency and builds a ritual of mourning for the world we’re losing and the worlds we’ve already lost. On paper it’s not such a bad idea, but it doesn’t translate in execution. A lack of subtlety, a lack of finesse; if I didn’t know better, I’d say it was a lack of care.
It certainly doesn’t make me care.
‘The music itself is far and away the best part of the production; the visuals I can take or leave. Really, I could just leave them.’
It begins well enough; a tumble of Australian voices in the darkness, chattering commentary that might be from commercial television. You can almost, but not quite, catch what they’re saying. Then high piping voices hauntingly announce the plainchant, Christus factus est. Onstage are a simple bed, bedside table and television that recall a nursing home. An Older Woman (Chrissie Page) stands by the bed in a plain smock that suggests a hospital gown.
In the flickering light of the television she lights a cigarette and makes little journeys back and forth from bed to table to television and back. On the little screen flicker silent images of pastel coloured presenters on pastel coloured sets chatting. The morning shows of the world are depressingly similar. They might be talking about Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that was subject to a terrorist shooting spree in 2015: the cover of an issue flickers past and the presenters refer to a handful of roughly drawn cartoons in the style of the magazine. I wonder if it’s not a good sign that I’m already more drawn to what’s on the television than what’s on stage.
The Older Woman makes her way to her bed and climbs in as around her figures in black stagehand clothes enter and wrap the television, the table and finally the bed containing the old woman in black cloth (maybe satin, from the shine). To the side, more black-clad figures hold heavy black flags and in the background the chorus appears from the dimness, dressed in everyday street clothes. They shuffle awkwardly, like family and friends at a funeral.
There is some simple choreography here – arms lifted in synch, hands placed on hearts – which doesn’t appear to be very well drilled – not all the arms go up at the same time, not all the hands go to the hearts. The awkwardness might be excused as the randomness of the everyday, or that humanity is not practiced in expressing its grief, or that each grieves in their own way, except that straggling movements join the others a fraction too late with an alacrity that suggests “Oh, yeah, we’re supposed to do this now.” Besides, with so little else on stage to focus on, the precision is what counts; and, as I said earlier, is for me Castellucci’s main saving grace.
‘The choreography is mostly built around maypoles, Morris dancing and other folk traditions and rarely rises above the level of a high school eisteddfod’
The bed is wheeled off and a Young Woman (Jacinta Hriskin) falls from underneath the bed to the floor, crumpled into a classical pose, surrounded by the mourning chorus in an image that recalls the old masters, Velasquez and Rembrandt. The Adelaide Festival Chorus may not move around very well but their voices can’t be faulted. The clarity of their singing is divine and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (under the baton of Rory Macdonald) make a sensitive and nuanced landscape of sound for them to sing in. The music itself is far and away the best part of the production; the visuals I can take or leave. Really, I could just leave them.
As the stage clears, the black walls recede to reveal a white box stage that is more like the Castellucci I’m familiar with. A projection on the back wall announces an “Atlas of extinction” as the Kyrie, or maybe the Dies Irae, begins. Then follows a series of projections that lists the names of extinct species from earth’s history, which carries on throughout the remaining 90 minutes. I feel the urge to sigh audibly, but I fight it. As the projections go on, I can’t escape the comparison with the obligatory In Memoriam sections of Hollywood awards shows. It’s meant to be relentless, I think, to keep the idea of global extinction forefront in our minds, to drive home the devastating loss of biodiversity that comes with the Great Extinctions. But not only are many of the “extinctions” listed not actual extinctions, but instead evolutions of specific species; they rapidly run out of species to list.
The lists move on to extinct lakes, extinct languages (which are skewed heavily, but not exclusively, towards the classical European languages), extinct cities, (which is even more heavily biased towards the cities of classical Western history), extinct art (which I’m fairly certain is exclusively western artists – I’m paying close attention by now and there’s van Gogh, van Dyke, Caravaggio, Turner, Picasso, the litany of art history’s Bad Dads …), lost architecture (again, mostly classical European buildings with a scattering of Asian temples and modern towers – the World Trade Centre and a handful of local buildings from Adelaide and Sydney, one from Brisbane, nothing from Melbourne, Perth or Hobart…) It finally concludes with an extinction list of abstract concepts, such as the extinction of the word “me”, of this seat, of tears, of friendship, of red. It reads like a hastily sketched mind-map of bad ideas a director might make in the middle of rehearsal, to be improved upon later.
What takes place then in front of this ham-fisted Power Point presentation is a series of ritual dances that accompany each movement of the Requiem. The choreography (Evelin Facchini) is mostly built around maypoles, Morris dancing and other folk traditions and rarely rises above the level of a high school eisteddfod. The dancers, several on loan from the Australian Dance Theatre, do at least make a decent fist of them.
I keep wanting to close my eyes and just listen to the music – the unchanged, piping and groaning hymn to the dead – and shut out the childish rubbish on stage, but I can’t look away. I start to think that this is how Alex must have felt in Clockwork Orange with his eyes wired open, crying out that “it’s a sin” to do this to his “lovely, lovely Ludwig Van”. I worry that I’m never going to be able to listen to the Mozart again without seeing this travesty unfold behind my eyes once more.
Amidst the leaden prancing and the faux profundity there are glimmerings of the Castellucci I remember. There is a moment early on where a Little Girl (Mietta Brookman) the third of the trinity of the mourned women (a tedious reiteration of the maiden, mother, crone trope) is smeared with brightly coloured powder paint and then lifted up onto two hooks or handles that drape her against the white backdrop. She hangs suspended there, isolated against the wall of white, a stark contrast that leaves smears of paint on the wall. The girl gets a rough go of it throughout the show: later she’s covered in honey and treacle and then feathers and dust. I wonder what is being said here? At a stretch it could be interpreted as a ritual anointment, but its hard to escape the shaming and ostracism of tarring and feathering.
There’s a moment of near darkness and quiet as dirt is spread across the white floor while three older performers make their way naked across the stage, huddle around a small fire and then move on again. And a smashed car that the chorus one after the other place themselves against in car-crash postures, before lying down next to each other in the dirt (the car crash metaphor is appropriate to the theme, I suppose, but is also an unfortunate corollary for the show itself). Even these moments are few and far between and only highlight the paucity of theatricality that is stretched wafer thin.
‘I start to think that this is how Alex must have felt in Clockwork Orange with his eyes wired open, crying out that “it’s a sin” to do this to his “lovely, lovely Ludwig Van”.’
It’s hard to put the music together with the visuals after the fact, as they don’t connect on stage; the images go about their business while the singing carries on regardless, and they become unmoored from each other in my memory. As the Recordare (or maybe the Lacrimosa) draws to its close, the stage hands return to tear down the long strips of white paper that line the walls, crumpling them on to the dirt. The chorus members rise from the earth and slowly remove their costumes until they are a mass of over-exposed human flesh huddled together in the shadows. They gather up the white paper and wrap it around their nakedness before they awkwardly shuffle off stage, seemingly embarrassed. The stage floor then tips up to become a wall at the back once more and the dirt and remaining paper slide down towards us, tipping the refuse of the work, the garbage, towards us, the audience.
The only truly beautiful moment comes when the treble soloist (Luca Shin), a young boy, stands simply at the front and centre and sings the Solfeggio in F Major. The clear, high-pitched notes and soaring melodies, untouched by the prim chaos that surrounds it, shines like a diamond in a pig pen. It just highlights for me what I’ve felt throughout the show: the music here is the star, and if it really is “genius”, perhaps the best thing might have been to just get out of the way and let the music speak for itself.
In a personal bookend moment, the final image is of a baby placed alone on stage as the curtain finally comes down. This echoes the first image I remember seeing of Castellucci’s work, a baby alone on stage for Tragedia Endogonidia at the Melbourne Festival in 2005. It draws the same response from the audience as it did back then: chuckles and gentle cooing, because babies are cute and the audience can’t help but react. Was this really the feeling we were supposed to be left with. at the end of the mourning of all these extinctions? It just seems to undercut everything we’ve just seen.
Ultimately the whole thing feels dangerously like a panacea for those of us feeling a bit guilty about the dying planet. What will be lost is not the earth though, the planet has gone through this tabula rasa process five times before and has always carried on in a new form. What will be lost is countless flora and fauna, and the work of humans. Our human uniqueness will be erased from this fragile blue and green rock, in much the same way that the Requiem is buried under the towering nonsense piled up on the stage of the Festival Theatre.
Requiem, by W.A. Mozart and Franz Xavier Sussmayr. Direction, set, costume and lighting design by Romeo Castellucci, conductor Rory Macdonald, associate director and costume design by Silvia Costa, revival director Josie Daxter, dramaturgy by Piersandra di Matteo, choreography by Evelin Facchini, assistant choreographer Simone Gatti and Tess Appleby, associate lighting Designer Marco Gusti, Performed by The Adelaide Festival Chorus (drawn from the Adelaide Chamber Singers and the State Opera Chorus) under the direction of Chorus Master Brett Weymark, and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre. New production of Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, in co-production with Adelaide Festival, Theater Basel, Wiener Festwochen, and Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia. Presented by the Adelaide Festival in association with Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Adelaide Festival Centre. Until March 4. Bookings
Performed in Latin and German with English surtitles.
Wheelchair accessible. Hearing assistance. Fully surtitled or minimal dialogue.