Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Verdi’s Requiem Revisited

Performance of Requiem at Tel Aviv Opera (photo by Yigal Shefer)

A performance of Verdi’s Requiem is not your run-of-the-mill concert, as it requires a large orchestra and choir, as well as special instruments and an unusual disposition of their location and performance. Thus, for example, the timpani have a prominent role to play in emphasizing the drama of the music and the words, the effect of the trumpets is amplified by having them placed on either side of the balcony above the orchestra in the Tuba Mirum (Trumpets shall sound) segment, not to mention the enormous, heart-stopping impact of the massed choir and orchestra singing ‘Dies Irae,’ (Judgement Day).

The requiem mass is essentially a prayer for the dead sung in Latin, as is customary in the Christian religion, even though many of the words and sentiments draw on the traditional Jewish liturgy. This is the case in the passage ‘Liber Scriptus Proferetur,’ (The Book is Open) which is a clear reference to the book supposedly kept by the deity in the Yom Kippur service, where the fate of each individual for the coming year is decided. The same can be said of the Sanctus (Holy) segment, which echoes the ‘Kadosh, Kadosh,’ in the Jewish Sabbath liturgy, extolling the sanctity of God. In fact, the Hebrew prayer for the dead starts by proclaiming the sanctity of God and is known as ‘Kadish.’

At the performance we attended last week at the Tel Aviv Opera, conducted by Dan Oettinger, the choir and orchestra filled the stage usually devoted to the singers involved in the operatic performance when the orchestra and the conductor are tucked away out of sight in the orchestra pit. However, as is customary when an opera is being sung, usually in Italian, the translation into Hebrew and English appears in surtitles above the stage, enabling the audience to follow the plot. Of course, there’s no plot in a requiem, but it helps to be able to know the meaning of what is being sung.

My late father was very fond of Verdi’s Requiem, and the LP records of a stellar performance of the work were a treasured item in our home in London. My father liked to listen to music and work at his desk on Sunday mornings (as orthodox Jews, we did not work or employ electrical appliances on Saturday, the Sabbath), and it was often my task to remain besides the gramophone and turn or change the records so that Dad (and we) could enjoy the music.

At one stage I came across a small book on my parents’ bookshelf entitled ‘Requiem in Theresienstadt,’ by Josef Bor. It described the enormous effort made by musicians and inmates at the concentration camp, led by Rafael Schaechter, to prepare and perform Verdi’s Requiem despite the unbearable conditions under which they were forced to live. Using a smuggled score, they performed the Requiem sixteen times, including one performance before senior SS officials and an International Red Cross delegation. The conductor Rafael Schaechter reportedly told the choir “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.” My paternal grandmother was incarcerated in Theresienstadt and perished there, so my family has a special connection to the performance of the Requiem there. Today an association known as ‘Defiant Requiem,’ dedicated to the memory and reproduction of that performance, continues to commemorate the event.

At the performance in Tel Aviv last week the audience sat in rapt silence as the orchestra played and the choir and soloists sang, bringing the majesty and drama of Verdi’s music to life. In Israel of today, with war being waged in the Gaza Strip and skirmishes raging in the north of the country, the performance of the requiem has special significance. In the plaza of the nearby Tel Aviv Museum families of the hostages held in Gaza were demonstrating in order to convince the government to do more to get them released.

In a very moving moment as the Requiem ends, the soprano lowers her voice and pleads with God in what is almost a whisper to save her from eternal death in hell, with the words ‘Libera Me’ (Release me). But in an action that sent shivers down the spine of everyone in the audience that night, the translation above her head read: ‘Release them,’ in an obvious reference to the current situation in Israel.

About the Author
I was born and brought up in England. I am a graduate of the LSE and the Hebrew University. I have lived in Israel since 1964. I am an experienced translator, editor and writer.
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