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Here, God really is in the details

Plácido Domingo prepares Verdi's Requiem as a dual memorial now.

September 08, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Rehearsing the Los Angeles Opera chorus, conductor Plácido Domingo was trying to get the hushed effect he wanted for part of the dreaded "Dies irae" (Day of Judgment) in Verdi's Requiem, a work he will conduct Sunday afternoon as part of the company's season-opening weekend.

"You can't imagine what it's going to be like when God really gets mad," he said. Covering his mouth to suggest terror, he whispered, "He's going to come and point at every one of you -- 'You, yes, you: Go there. You, go there. . . .' You really see God in front of you, and he's angry. We have to have that kind of sound."

The choristers instantly sounded subdued -- and it's an effect they are likely to repeat Sunday.

L.A. Opera originally planned to present this single performance of Verdi's magisterial setting of the Roman Catholic funeral Mass as a memorial to the late Edgar Baitzel, the company's chief operating officer, who died in March. But with the death of tenor Luciano Pavarotti this week, Domingo said later, he decided to add his fellow tenor's name to the dedication.

Speaking from his office at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he also indicated that the change of plans in a way mirrored the history of the Requiem.

That history began when Verdi suggested that he and other Italian composers write a composite Requiem in 1869 to memorialize Gioacchino Rossini -- the composer of "The Barber of Seville," among many other operas -- who had died a year earlier. Each composer would write a movement, and Verdi would write the final "Libera me" (Deliver me, O Lord). Everyone completed his assignment, but for various reasons, the performance never took place. (The work was forgotten until it was resurrected in 1988 by conductor Helmuth Rilling, who gave the premiere in Stuttgart, Germany.)

However, with the death in 1873 of Italian patriot, poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni -- a man Verdi venerated as he did almost no one else-- the composer decided to "expand this one movement into a full Requiem of his own," Domingo said.

In a sense, Verdi wrote the piece backward, retaining the original "Libera me," although in slightly different form, and expanding sections of it to become the Intriot and the "Dies irae." So artful and imaginative are the results that most people would never guess the real chronology of the composition.

Verdi was also facing a barren stretch in his writing and was keen on stretching himself as a composer.

"Between 1871, when Verdi wrote 'Aida,' and 1887, when he wrote 'Otello,' this is the drier period of Verdi's life," Domingo said. "I'm convinced that Wagner has something to do with it. He starts to listen to Wagner and hears all the changes Wagner made that pushed music to a different level that continues to our day. So he tries completely new things, sublimating the patriotic fervor and sadness and desperation in 'Macbeth' and many of his early operas into this tremendous fear of God and religious feeling.

"For me, it is, of course, a sacred work, but it is absolutely a theater piece too," he said. "All our characters suffer or, in the Sanctus, experience joy. It is almost an opera.

"The most difficult thing is to keep the correct pace through the whole piece. You have to be careful not to overindulge."

To signal what he wanted in rehearsal, Domingo often sang, sometimes full-out, sometimes sotto voce -- in an undertone.

"I do that when I have a certain color in mind," he said. "I enjoy singing when preparing the chorus and orchestra. But I don't want to be singing when conducting in public, just as I don't want to conduct when I'm singing. Everything has its own time."

Sitting to the right of Domingo at the rehearsal was Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and, beginning this season, L.A. Opera's associate conductor and chorus master.

"It's very satisfying to be back deeply immersed in the world of opera," Gershon said later. "Doing opera and concert work together is two sides of a coin. It's that much more satisfying artistically to have them both together."

Verdi's Requiem, Gershon recalled, "was one of the very first choral masterpieces that I came in contact with. I was enough of a musical geek in high school that it was one of the scores that I often carried under my arm from class to class. If there was a particularly boring lecture, I would sit in the back with my Verdi Requiem score.

"I have to say of all the great choral-orchestral works out there, to me it's the most human. A lot's made of the fact that Verdi was, at best, an agnostic, and this is, to me, really a Requiem for the living. But it's a Requiem that in the end has, I fear, a fairly bleak message as well.

"I don't take a lot of comfort in the final C-major chord, which seems not really a resolution at all," Gershon said. "Everybody has just run out of strength to keep going. I find that very moving, and I think it's one of the reasons why the piece communicates to every age with such power."


Verdi's Requiem

Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $15 to $250

Contact: (213) 972-8001 or

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