Deeper and Deeper into a Colorful Verdi

I’m often amazed at how there’s always something more to get out of a piece, even one that I’m already intimately familiar with like the Verdi Requiem.

First, let’s take the two rehearsals with John Oliver.  In my last post, I talked about how we had focused on the technical aspects of singing the piece under Bill Cutter’s tutelage.  The difference when John stepped up to the podium and began conducting was palpable.  It was immediately clear that we all were doing some lazy singing–or at least lazy interpreting–because John was immediately asking for things just by the way he conducted, and we were able to deliver them.  Even then, though John’s rehearsals were focused on tactical concerns… but it was tactical approaches to getting the emotion into the piece.  Pause here and here…  put a break before this subito piano so that the audience can hear the dynamic jump and the forte passage preceding it doesn’t run over the change.  There’s usually a stentando here, but watch the conductor to find out how he observes it.   That sort of thing.

But when Maestro Gatti took the podium last night, we went a level even deeper, focused a lot on color.  Color is a strange musical term; defined only as the quality of the tone, but it’s so weird to use a visual concept for an audio one–and talking about a “darker” color doesn’t help!  But Gatti made us start several passages over and over again until we got the color just the way he wanted it.  As one bass commented to me on the way back to the rehearsal room, “It’s clear he hears the piece a certain way in his head, and he won’t stop until we match that.”

By the end of Maestro Gatti’s piano rehearsal on Monday night, we had a very specific version of the Verdi Requiem in our heads.  One that is not misterioso (which is how I’m used to singing the Verdi), but instead full of a lingering regret and sorrow.  I think he used the word culpa — as in “sorry” — to describe how we should be singing from the very opening notes.  [Edit: it was, in fact, cupo — meaning dark, somber.] He modified vowels to achieve a certain darkness, often chiding us for very open /i/ and /e/ sounds which came across as too happy or too childlike.  He migrated the triumphant sounding Sanctus movement away from its celebratory nature into one of respect.  He asked for sharp differences in legato and staccato notes to get combinations of contrasting textures.  At one point he reined in the sopranos because their excellently sung high notes were piercing through the rest of the chorus–I didn’t truly notice it until he fixed it.  He was very clear and insightful in his tempi choices.  He would make the text mean something, asking for the repeated request dona (“give [them]”) to be more prayerful and pleading, for instance.  And he did a few really interesting modifications to how we sang as an ensemble to get some magical effects, which I’ll detail in my next post for people familiar with the piece.

We had heard that Gatti had a reputation for demanding precision.  While we saw some of that last night, it wasn’t so much a demand but a promise.  Each one of the Verdi performances I’ve been involved in with other choruses has had a distinct flavor.  I’m very much looking forward to this one!

5 responses to “Deeper and Deeper into a Colorful Verdi

  1. I wonder if the word could have been “cupa” rather than “culpa.” I think it may mean hollow (if related to the English “cup”). It appears, for example, in “Aida” when she’s waiting for Radames and says that if he’s coming to say a last goodbye, she’ll drown herself in the river: “Del Nilo i cupi vortici pace me daran forse.” (The cupi” vortices of the Nile will perhaps give me peace.) Never knew exactly what the word meant.

    Overall, it’s interesting to learn of maestro Gatti’s approach. I’ll be looking for it in performance — with the soloists and orchestra as well. Was the rehearsal with full forces, or are there separate rehearsals for singers and players at first? If it was everybody, was he making the others treat the music similarly?

  2. @naturgesetz: It very well may have been cupa, which online translators claim means “dark, gloomy, obscure, sullen, dour, morose, sulky, deep, hollow, raucous.” Those adjectives are definitely the color he was trying to achieve, and very much not misterioso. Great catch!

    The typical TFC schedule these days is an early rehearsal with book just focused on the notes, then 1-2 weeks before the performance a rehearsal that adds technique, specific dynamic changes, and light color, but not too much since it’s up to the conductor ultimately. Then an off-book rehearsal the week before the performance to make sure we’re memorized. Then a piano rehearsal on stage with the actual conductor, before 1-4 sessions with the orchestra and soloists. The number of orchestra rehearsals we have depends on how much choral content is in the piece; sessions we don’t sing may be between the conductor and orchestra only or orchestra-and-soloist passages.

    We’ll see today whether he can rein in the BSO to achieve the dynamics and textures he’s looking for from the chorus.

    Which performance will you be attending?

    • I’ll be there “opening night” — Thursday. My seat for the B and C series is 1st balcony left C37 (in the last section before we get to the center balcony — convenient to the coat check). The Requiem was a big factor in my decision to subscribe to the B series this year rather than the D.

  3. “cupo” is a favorite musical direction for Verdi and may best translate “darkly, deep, sombre: in this instance. The composer himself uses it at the “mors, [G.P]. mors, [G.P.] mors stupebit” moment of the Bass solo (I, m 155), where it is translated into German as “duester” in our Edition Peter vocal score. Another favorite moment is Iago’s sotto voce “jealousy motif” sung “cupo e legato” (“Euni’dra fosca, livida . . “) to Otello in Act II.iii.

    • Thanks David! I was hoping someone more knowledgeable than I on the subject could chime in. And now I know what Maestro was talking about.

      Thanks for having the courage (pronounced “coo-RAZH”, per Maestro Gatti, of course) to post.

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