A film by Norbert Beilharz. EuroArts 2001318, 119 mins., subtitled
We go to the archives in search of lost treasure, and sometimes we find it. As a tribute to Claudio Abbado on his eightieth birthday, which fell on June 26, EuroArts has reissued Lux Aeterna, a film by Norbert Beilharz documenting the maestro's rehearsals of the Verdi Requiem in Milan in 1985. Was this the best they could do?
Barely past the titles, a bland, uncredited male voice, speaking in German, announces that this is a film about Verdi's Requiem and also about transience, going on to list illustrations of the transient we may expect to see — excerpts of musical rehearsals; "symbols of life"; people enjoying themselves at the theater; imagery of consumerism; tomb sculptures; water on stone. It's also a film, the voice says, about Claudio Abbado, to be shown on the job at the church of San Marco, where the Requiem was first performed, as well as at the Teatro alla Scala, both in a piano studio and in the auditorium.
The film delivers all the promised imagery, punctuating the rehearsal footage with shots of posters for Ferré and Valentino, writhing stone mourners and self-conscious extras socializing in various public spaces at La Scala, programs in hand. But to what end? Two interminable hours later, a viewer is none the wiser about Verdi, the Requiem, or even transience, and all one will have gleaned about Abbado is that he almost invariably wants less. "Less x" is in fact the very first phrase heard from his lips in the movie — a note for the as-yet-unseen chorus as they mouth the words "lux perpetua" at or beneath the threshold of the inaudible. Abbado's concern throughout is that something is too loud. Once in a great while, he frets about intonation.
Now and then, he reassures a soloist. For the record, sopranos Montserrat Caballé and Cecilia Gasdia alternate, as do tenors Peter Dvorsky and Chris Merritt. Lucia Valentini Terrani takes the mezzo part, Samuel Ramey the bass. Within narrow limits, Abbado's praise is most lavish for Valentini Terrani, but his byplay with Caballé — or rather hers with him — is the most memorable. Thrown by his cues, she fluffs her entrance in the seismic "Libera me" and giggles. Then she fluffs it again and giggles some more. The third time, Abbado leaves her to her own devices, and she sails right through, projecting the doomsday mood even as mischief twinkles in her eyes.
The soundtrack switches back and forth between piano and orchestra rehearsals, which can be disorienting, but the material does follow the proper order of the movements of the Requiem and is virtually continuous. Deadpan recitation of German translations of the liturgical texts more often than not drowns out key moments in the music.
Late in the game, the filmmaker offers to explain why, of all the requiem masses ever written, only those of Mozart and Verdi have won a permanent hold on listeners everywhere. The argument — something to do with love for humanity, suffering, paradox and truth — has an eloquent ring but on reflection goes up in smoke. (All is vanity.)