Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín, the brainchild of Murry Sidlin, which was performed April 20 in Carolina’s Memorial Hall, is at once important and weak. Designed to carry forward the memory of a great conductor and his brave, exacting, life-saving work while prisoner in the Nazi labor camp of Terezín (Theresienstadt) on the (at that time, erased) Czech/German border, this work uses spoken word, taped interviews with survivors, and a piece of Nazi propaganda film, along with a performance of Verdi’s Requiem.

It’s an uneasy mix.

The Nazis, when they encountered persistent resistance after invading and occupying Czechoslovakia, rounded up most of the Jewish intellectuals, professionals, and artists and imprisoned them at Terezín to wear them out before deporting them to Auschwitz – while trying to make the world believe that Terezín was a kind of spa for Jews. As part of this big lie, the SS allowed a little “free” time in the evenings, during which professors lectured, and artists made art. Among the prisoners was a young, charismatic, conductor, Rafael Schächter. Working with the camp’s single piano and a single, smuggled score of the Requiem, Schächter taught the music to four soloists and a choir of 150, and the meaning of the words in the Catholic Mass transformed to fit the situation. As people were sent to their deaths, he trained new singers. Between 1943 and 1944, the Jews performed this powerful music 16 times. Once they sang it for the Red Cross inspectors who were being given a faked up version of the camp – but they didn’t get the meaning, not even of the “Libera me.”

This is a story that should never be forgotten, should never be passed over in the press of newer information. That it needs to be told, especially to younger people not steeped in the history of Nazism and WWII, is quite evident. It testifies to the best and the worst of humanity. In its bare facts, it could hardly be more dramatic. Yet, as many a playwright can attest, it takes more than that to make an indelible staged artwork. Sidlin’s goal is most worthy; his passion cannot be doubted. But the enormity of the Nazi crimes, the hell they created and embellished at Terezín, and the surpassing marvel of Schächter’s accomplishment there do not fully convey in the work as it stands now.

Sidlin, who was on the podium for the performance, is a conductor, not a writer – there are many clichéd phrases, coarse transitions and assorted heavy-handed repetitions. Sidlin spoke some of the text himself; he is not blessed with an actor’s voice. The two very good actors who read as The Lecturer and as Schächter, Vivienne Benesch and David Whalen, did the most they could with what they had to work with, but their parts were so dispersed within the whole as to make emotional connection impossible. It was amazing to hear and see on the video some of the very few Terezín singers who survived the Nazi murder machine – but somebody needs to learn how to edit video, because it was visual garbage. And the entire piece is a choppy assemblage that drains the great Requiem of much of its power.

When I was considering beforehand how the dramatic, non-musical elements might be introduced, it never occurred to me that it would be done by interrupting the music. I thought there’d be an introductory talk/video section, and perhaps some acted sections between the sung sections. But over and over, the singing was halted so that text and/or video could be interjected, and quite soon, what was being said had already been said. I just could not believe they would do this with the “Libera me” – but sure enough, the soprano was stopped in favor of more nagging pedagogy. If I’d been on the aisle, I would have broken the critic’s cardinal rule and walked out. But if I had, I would have missed the train whistle blasting through the final notes. The obviousness of that was just terrible.

None of the evening’s difficulties were the fault of the musicians. The UNC Symphony Orchestra (Tonu Kalam, director) did a good job with the great cresting and receding waves of the music. The combined choral ensembles of the Carolina Choir and Chamber Singers (Susan Klebanow, director), the Men’s Glee Club (Daniel M. Huff, director), and the Women’s Glee Club (Sue T. Klausmeyer, director), while not as powerful as those of professional singers, were pure and sweet. Their youthful timbre made the prayers of the Mass even more poignant. Learning the demanding Verdi Requiem is a great accomplishment; to perform it interrupted must have made it even more demanding.

The professional quartet was very strong. Louise Toppin‘s liquid soprano was a silken benediction, especially beautiful when weaving with Mary Gayle Greene‘s mezzo in the “Recordare,” and with the men’s as well, in the “Lacrimosa.” Tenor Timothy W. Sparks had a lovely tone and sang with remarkable clarity: he was outstanding in the “Ingemisco.” Bass-baritone Marc Callahan was a little studied early on, but completely redeemed himself with the “Confutatis,” which must have been a very awful part to sing at Terezín (Confutatis maledictis, flammis acribus addictis, voca me cum benedictis/ When the damned are confounded and consigned to scarring flames, call me to be with the blessed).

The Defiant Requiem ended well (after that train whistle). In front of video of prisoners being loaded into cattle cars and locked in, the orchestra and then the singers quietly moved off stage, as a single violin mourned them until the darkness fell. While the Defiant Requiem was not an aesthetic triumph, if it caused even a few people to know this history, to remember it and share it, then the production may be considered a success.

For more background, go here.