War Requiem & Strange Meeting

Wednesday 28th June 2017

Sinfonia Viva and The Lost Boys at Derby Cathedral

Derby’s industrial museum, The Silk Mill, is currently (until 23 July) hosting the Weeping Window segment of the sculpture of ceramic poppies that first went on display at the Tower of London three years ago to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. To tie in with this, Sinfonia Viva and local theatre company The Lost Boys have created a double-bill which they plan to take on tour around the East Midlands next year.

The first half comprised Strange Meeting, Peter Roberts’ one-act play based on Wilfred Owen’s poem of the same name, describing a dream in which a British soldier meets the German he killed the day before, and their tentative reconciliation. With Paul Broesmith as narrator, Joe (Thomas Farthing) and Albrecht (Mathew Shepherd) played out their parallel existences amid what the programme described as the “90% boredom and 10% terror” of the trenches.

Derby Cathedral’s acoustic is unhelpful to speaking voices, even with some types of microphone, and it was not easy to catch every word (though I was told it was fine at the back) but, as directed by Derby LIVE’s Pete Meakin, the play moved convincingly to its heart-rending culmination.

Owen’s poem also forms the climax of Britten’s War Requiem, and in the second half Sinfonia Viva unveiled a newly-devised sequence of excerpts from the work – in consultation with the Britten-Pears Foundation and music publishers Boosey and Hawkes – comprising the Wilfred Owen settings Britten interleaved with the text of the requiem mass, together with some of the music for boys’ choir to provide context.

Derby Cathedral boy and girl choristers, directed by Hugh Morris, were on outstanding form, with sharply-focused tone; in their hands the Offertorium was less of a prayer for the dead, more of an insistent demand. Tenor Philip Brown and baritone Grant Doyle inhabited their roles with total conviction, from the hopelessness of ‘Move him into the sun’, to the stark denunciation of ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’, Owen’s grim twist to the Abraham and Isaac story. Balance with the instrumental ensemble was not always ideal, but the impulse behind the music came across clearly. Conducted by David Lawrence, Sinfonia Viva’s players made vivid individual and collective contributions.

‘Be Slowly Lifted Up’ lacked the move directly into the reprise of the Dies Irae of its original context, which it needs in order to make its intended final impact; the ending here felt a little anti-climactic in consequence. ‘Strange Meeting’ itself was properly cathartic, though the final instrumental bars just needed a few extra seconds to tail off, rather than coming to an abrupt stop. On the whole, though, the idea worked better than I was expecting, given that the thematic cross-references between the Latin settings and those of Owen’s poetry which maintain so much of the parent work’s dramatic tension had to go by the board. But given a little fine tuning, next year’s tour should be a powerful experience for all concerned.