Reworking a Requiem

Dramaturg Hildegard De Vuyst discusses her work with composer Fabrizio Cassol and director Alain Platel, adapting Mozart’s Requiem in a powerful new production coming to Sadler’s Wells.

Cassol has made it abundantly clear that this reinterpretation of Mozart’s Requiem is the most perilous musical undertaking he has ever attempted.

This artistic adventure began some three years prior to its first performance in Berlin (18 January 2018) when Cassol and Platel began to think about the next stage in their long-standing collaboration. It must have been conceived during the Coup Fatal tour, an encounter between 13 Congolese musicians and the European baroque repertoire, for which the two had joined forces to complete the finishing touches. Their very first collaboration, however, was more than ten years ago. This would normally have been the choir project with which the KVS in Brussels opened its renovated theatre. However, due to delays in the renovation work, VSPRS, based on Monteverdi’s Vespro de la beata vergine, came out first. Then came pitié!, whose final performances in Kinshasa could be described as pretty historic. These created a strong link with the Congo that still resonates today.

An adaptation of Mozart’s Requiem was what most appealed to Platel. This is probably because during that period, death had crossed his path a number of times: he had had to bid farewell to his father, had lost his faithful dog, and had sat at the deathbed of his mentor Gerard Mortier. For Cassol, the knowledge that Mozart had not finished the Requiem opened up the possibility of relating to it as a composer. Others had added to it, in different eras. Why not a fresh interpretation for a time in which the world has become so much bigger and the distances so much smaller?

Cassol found a beautiful edition of the Requiem in the library of the conductor Sylvain Cambreling and set about studying it. The variations in handwriting enabled him to distinguish the parts that Mozart had written from the additions made by others. However, it would be misleading to suggest that Cassol stripped away the additions and only retained pure Mozart. The original has also been reworked. Cassol has made sketches of it; an imaginary distillate that contains the essence of Mozart’s writing and will always be recognised as Mozart. The texts have been reduced to their essence.

Equally, it would be simplistic to think that the additions are African. As Cassol reiterates: there is little that is African about the added rhythms or harmonies. For him, it is all part of a musical world of sound that he has always advocated and which is fuelled by specific musical traditions (pygmy, India, Mali) that have always been linked to equally specific forms of spirituality. Herein lies the great challenge for Cassol: imagining a different kind of ceremony for mourning that is neither Western nor African. It is likely that this need in him was also fuelled by a serious loss in his own private life, by an acute need for nourishing vitality.

Watch the trailer for Requiem pour L.

What else did he do in terms of reworking? Anyone familiar with the Requiem will immediately think of mass choral singing. Cassol has replaced the masses with individuals, thus creating an alternative expressive space where the melodies follow on from one another. Consecutive vocal parts then become a clarification between people, thus making the Requiem something ‘of the people’. Because of these vocal parts – often the only thing by Mozart that remained – Cassol needed a number of lyrical voices. For this he initially looked to South African opera singers that he had got to know through his work with Brett Bailey, for whom he adapted Verdi’s Macbeth.

Generally the vocal distribution rests on a solid foundation of four voices: soprano, alto, bass and baritone. Cassol deliberately opted for triangles, omitting the bass. This allows for greater flexibility, whilst also creating a kind of instability. Across from the trio of lyrical singers stands a trio of black voices that hail from the oral tradition: the Brussels-based Fredy Massamba, alongside Kinois Boule Mpanya and Russell Tshiebua, the backing singers who already worked them-selves into the foreground in Coup Fatal, and were also part of the Platel production Nicht schlafen. However, the voices do not always sing together and therefore cannot always seek support from one another. For Cassol, this is an extension of the idea of the fugue, which makes the mu-sic more joyful.

Mozart’s score does not include an end for the Requiem. Generally, the end goes back to the be-ginning (Dies Irae), but for what Platel had in mind this would prove impossible. That’s why Cassol gradually allows the Requiem to merge into the Mass in C. The Requiem is in D, which for Cassol means the most open, radiant tonality: joy that slowly slides into the heavier, darker and more dramatic C.

Cassol regards himself as the architect of this music. But let us not forget that the work is also informed by the input of the musicians during rehearsals. Thus the Latin texts of the Requiem or the Mass in C have their counterparts in Lingala or Swahili, with here and there a touch of Tshiluba or Kikongo. Russell Tshiebua often acts as a translator and text producer. Massamba recites in his mother tongue, Kilari from Brazzaville. Sometimes the translation comes first and the music second; sometimes there are first notes and only then the language that best suits them. However, the translations never differ fundamentally from the Latin texts.

The most difficult are the often abrasive harmonies that are stacked up against one another in such an idiosyncratic way. This is most unlike the Congolese’ or Africans’ usual way of doing things and it requires a different cultural response; pretty complicated if you have to learn everything by ear, for in many places the score goes against what musicians are familiar with. It only falls into place when all the voices are filled in, which is why the musical rehearsals took so long (the first rehearsals date back to April 2017). It is not only a formidable challenge to bring together musicians with these different backgrounds; it is also important that these musicians are able to express their way of life in the music.

The figure three has always had a special place in masonic rituals. In order to pay tribute to Mozart and his freemasonry, not only are there triangles in the voices, but also three likembes (or thumb pianos). At times, the music becomes somewhat Cubist: in Confutatis, rhythms, influences and worlds collide to create a multifaceted image. Luckily Rodriguez Vangama, Cassol’s right-hand man, is on stage, the orchestra leader of Coup Fatal who continues to exert such tight control on the band now. The euphonium or tuba (Niels Van Heertum from En avant, marche!) seems to belong to the angel of death, launching his appeal in Tuba Mirum; in Hostias it is as though it is creeping into the head of the dying L. The accordion underpins and undermines the vocal harmonies in equal measure, and the percussion acts as the proverbial knock on the door. We reach the borders of what is expressible. The one question left for Cassol to answer after this Requiem pour L is: after this, what is there left to do? There is a sense that it is finished.

Requiem pour L. runs at Sadler’s Wells on 20 & 21 March. Tickets are available now priced at £20 by calling the ticket office on 020 7863 8000 or book online.