'Defiant Requiem' powerfully inspirits a haunting past

By Stephen Brookes
Friday, October 8, 2010

It's almost impossible to imagine, but in the dark, bleak years of 1943 and 1944, in the remote Nazi internment camp of Terezín, some of the most extraordinary musical performances of all time took place. Surviving brutal conditions and facing imminent death, a group of Jewish prisoners nevertheless formed a chorus and memorized (from a single score) Giuseppe Verdi's earthshaking "Messa da Requiem," performing it some 16 times in the camp.

The Nazis considered it a wonderfully cruel joke -- the prisoners were "singing their own requiem," as one put it, and a Roman Catholic one at that. But the joke was on the Nazis, for the prisoners found in the work an epic gesture of defiance and hope that gave them a spiritual victory over their captors. As Rafael Schaechter, the group's director, put it: "We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them."

That story is at the heart of "Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín," a multimedia concert-drama created by Murry Sidlin and given a spectacular, bare-knuckle performance Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center. The requiem itself is almost unbearably powerful on its own -- a searing tone poem about the end of the world, operatic in scope and run through with celestial melodies and cascades of fire and brimstone. But Sidlin's setting of the music, incorporating film of the camp, interviews with survivors, and actors describing the dramatic background, was handled with both dignity and power, and pushed the requiem to even more harrowing depths and exalting heights.

Major players were involved in the production, and Sidlin drew strong, committed performances from the Washington National Opera Orchestra, the City Choir of Washington, the Catholic University of America Chorus and four soloists, including the angel-voiced mezzo-soprano Janet Hopkins. Sidlin may have sacrificed precision for passion here and there (that eight-part fugue in the Sanctus is no picnic), but that hardly seems a fault. And when the singers filed out at the end, quietly intoning the "Oseh shalom" from the Jewish liturgy as a single violinist continued to play on the darkening stage, the effect was nothing less than electrifying.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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