La Seine Musicale, Paris
By Darius Riahy
The acclaimed French conductor Laurence Equilbey, the founder and musical director of both the Insula period instrument orchestra and the Accentus chamber choir, has a solid reputation for her work in the choral repertoire, and a penchant for contemporary visual arts. For this project she collaborated with Mat Collishaw of ‘Young British Artists’ fame, who has created Sky burial, a video installation projected onto a large screen during a performance of Fauré’s Requiem and Gounod’s Saint François d’Assise.
It is a promising collaboration in an aptly modern setting. Insula is in residence at La Seine Musicale, an imposing concrete music and performing arts complex that occupies Seguin Island on the Seine in a suburb west of Paris. The island was formerly home to the Renault factory. It now features a futuristic round glass building wrapped in a wooden exoskeleton. Much of the electricity is generated by a colossal solar panel shaped like a sail which rotates around the building to follow the sun. Even more impressive are the acoustics in the classical music auditorium, which are truly immersive and transparent.
In comparison to similar works, Fauré’s hugely popular Requiem, which has been described as a ‘lullaby of death’, is a relatively serene and intimate affair. Although this is not an entirely peaceful experience, with suspense and darker themes subtly woven into the music, it nevertheless contrasts with the sheer scale of Berlioz’s Requiem or the terror unleashed during Verdi’s dies Irae. Perhaps the soothing nature of the requiem, which omits the full dies Irae, reflects Fauré’s view of death ‘as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience’. Executed properly, this is one of the most beautiful choral pieces anywhere and this performance at La Seine Musicale certainly does deliver.
The programme begins with, Gounod’s simple and blissful Saint François d’Assise. It is a cleverly chosen piece to precede and later blend into the requiem. The outstanding tenor voice of Amitai Matimore, along with Equilbey’s balanced approach and Insula’s timbral palette, more than make up for the oratorio’s slightly staid quality, rendering it highly enjoyable.
For the calibre of musicians here, including the Accentus choir who are intimately familiar with the piece, Fauré’s Requiem is not technically difficult. What is remarkable then is the degree of care taken with the delivery. Equilbey’s direction is meticulous, painstakingly accentuating the emotional charge in each phrase and giving an edge to some of the darker undertones. The tempo here feels just right, moving forward without ever dragging or feeling rushed. Insula executes everything with precision and the period instruments add an appropriately subtle clarity. Fauré had apparently asked for bright and vibrant sopranos, not ‘old goats who have never known love’ – he wouldn’t have been disappointed. The Accentus choir is superb, both clear and balanced. Using a boy treble in Pie Jesu is an inspired decision.
Collishaw’s video accompanies Gounod’s piece mostly with images of clouds moving past the sun. Then, coinciding exactly with the first chilling notes in Fauré’s Kyrie, a vulture appears in the sky gliding majestically, a sight both awesome and ominous. This sudden change in mood is effective and relies on synchronising the video and the live music with precision, a difficult task that Collishaw implements successfully throughout.
As the Requiem progresses we are transported to a dystopian world, and our viewpoint, maybe that of a vulture, circles the exterior of an inner city tower block, slowly ascending the building. We are given glimpses into some of the rooms where elderly individuals are dying peacefully in their beds, surrounded by grieving loved ones. Subsequently their lifeless bodies are carried to the roof of the tower block and left for the vultures to eat. This is the ritual of ‘sky burial’ still practised in some parts of the world. In Tibet and some other parts of East Asia, human corpses are left on mountaintops for scavenging birds and other animals. Similarly, in the ancient Zoroastrian funeral tradition, human bodies are taken to especially built ‘Towers of Silence’, where they lie exposed to the elements for the vultures to recycle.
The hybrid of actors and CGI, along with the grim colour palette, lends an eerie and at times disturbing feeling to the scenes. The feasting of vultures on human flesh is uncomfortable to watch, although it never becomes gratuitously gory by today’s standards. Nor is it any more upsetting than vivid scenes of people dying. The contrast between these and more tranquil themes in the installation are used effectively. Images of clouds, streams, rivers and rivers flowing into the sea appear at various stages. Some are perhaps the thoughts of those dying and apparently drawing on parallels between the water cycle and the cycle of life.
The overall thesis here is that Fauré’s requiem has, over time, lost some of its edge and become a bit too sweet for its own good. Collishaw hopes to restore its original impact by adding some ‘gristle’ to highlight the darker moments in the music, which will in turn enhance the sweetness of the sublime parts. He has certainly highlighted those moments. Whether the Requiem has lost its original edge is debatable. Either way, we are given a new way to engage with the music.
Sitting in the Soho House members’ club in Paris the day after the concert, Mat Collishaw is friendly, articulate and thoughtful and comes across as modest. He is aware that the audience may perceive his guidance on what to think when listening to music as arrogant but hopes they remain open to his perspective. Introducing the concept of ‘sky burial’ into a requiem is novel and, with the video installation being largely open to interpretation, he is for the most part shifting the ‘beholder’s share’ rather than diminishing it. One hopes that that this collaboration will attract a broader audience to classical performances and, perhaps more importantly, retain their interest in the future.
Sky Burial premieres at the Barbican Centre in London in November 2023.