A vintage Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ brings history to life in special screenings

by Elizabeth Ackerman, Lister reviewer

On February 29, I went to see the 1967 film of the Verdi Requiem conducted by Herbert von Karajan, with soloists Leontyne Price, a very young Luciano Pavarotti, Fiorenza Cossotto and  Nikolai Ghiaurov. The film, which was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, screened at Laemmle’s Pasadena Playhouse 7, as well as at various other Laemmle locations, as a part of their Monday night Culture Vulture series.

Just to get the minor flaws out of the way: if you are a devotee of the live from the Met HD performances, this is a different experience. The sound system at the theater we were in (one of the smaller ones at the Playhouse 7) was sufficient, but not glorious. There was also a very loud a/c vent blowing, which was somewhat distracting, especially in quieter movements.

verdi_requiem_posterThose minor quibbles aside, this film was thrilling. The filmmaker, Clouzot (famous for films such as Quai des OrfèvresDiabolique, and a film version of Manon), filmed it in an empty La Scala, in memory of Toscanini’s death a decade earlier. He gives the soloists, conductor, chorus and members of the orchestra equal time on screen, and the result is mesmerizing. Some of the side-angle shots of the chorus, especially, were like nothing I had ever seen before — except on stage as a member of a chorus. Because of the intimacy and creativity of the camera work, you  were given the real sense of the chorus as the embodiment of  humanity, in all its great glory and blue eyeshadow! (This is the height of the 60s, and almost every woman, including Price and Cossotto, is wearing fabulous shades of blue or green.) Clouzot also zooms in on instrumentalists at interesting times: for example, there were moments when the flute was doubling a singer, and we’d be watching the flute. I loved this.

The soloists were stunning: Price was divine, Pavarotti (with no beard yet!) looked nervous at the beginning and sang angelically, Ghiaurov had a gorgeous dark voice and mood, and my favorite, Cossotto, was magnificent. Von Karajan’s leadership was brilliant and transcendent. Again, the filmmaker gave us perspectives we don’t often get in more conventionally filmed concert versions. With the camera moving from very close up, and often from the side, in this empty hall, Von Karajan was alone with his musicians and his muse, and utterly, passionately one with the music.

I was moved, and left feeling deep appreciation for Verdi, all the musicians, the filmmaker, and Laemmle for offering this series.

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