The Royal Melbourne Philharmonic’s latest performance of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem was dedicated to the memory of former RMP Patron, the late Fra’ Professor Richard Divall; it is difficult to imagine a more fitting tribute. All the ingredients were there: one of the greatest settings of the Requiem Mass ever written by one of the greatest operatic composers of all time, a splendid line-up of soloists, the fresh young voices of Melbourne University Choral Society combined with the experienced forces of the Royal Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra – and all under the dynamic baton of Andrew Wailes. Maestro Divall would have felt honoured.
The falling cello phrase and hushed choral murmur of the reverential opening Requiem was marked by beautifully blended tone and rhythmic accord. The choir sang without scores at this point so that attention was directed towards the conductor and the sound. The “lux perpetua” that followed was all the more climactic because of this. Verdi has been castigated for his operatic (and therefore sacrilegious) treatment of the Requiem Mass, but the glorious crescendo of sound conveying perpetual light offered a spiritually uplifting experience for the listener. And even the most enthusiastic hellfire and brimstone preacher’s rantings would pale before the full-blooded vehemence of this large body of choristers; their Dies Irae was spine-tingling stuff and a repeated dramatic reminder of our mortality. The climactic moments of the final Libera Me were like an emotional tidal wave.
The opera background of all the soloists was evident in voice colouration and dramatic expression. Australian Italian tenor Virglio Marino’s Italianate vocal production was apparent from the first note and his focused tone and ringing top contributed the dramatic impact in both solos and ensembles. David Parkin also issued a chilling reminder that “death shall stun” using his dark, resonant bass voice for sepulchral iterations of “mors”. There was something implacable in Parkin’s demeanour that added to the threat.
It is remarkable how many sections of Verdi’s Requiem begin with the mezzo-soprano soloist. If any piece of nineteenth century choral repertoire can reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a mezzo-soprano, it would be this work and Anna Dowsley triumphed. Willowy in form, her voice was warm, abundant and effortless. She was also clearly involved in the text. At times, her timbre matched that of soprano Natalie Aroyan so well that the voices were almost an extension of one another. There are several unaccompanied passages in this work, making secure intonation a prerequisite for the soloists. The extended unaccompanied duet of the Agnus Dei, where soprano and mezzo-soprano sing in bare octaves was very lovely indeed. In fact, all soloists (and the choir) walked those a cappella tight ropes with great success.
Of all the soloists, it is the soprano who has the most taxing part. The voluptuous voice of Armenian Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan is almost enough to make you wonder whether it is necessary to pay a small fortune to hear Anna Netrebko when we have such talent in Australia. A creamy sound with, in general, a nicely rounded, floating top register, fullness throughout the range, and excellent breath control served Verdi’s intentions well. There was weight of sound that soared above choir and orchestra without the obtrusive vibrato that sometimes accompanies it. The earnest plea at the beginning of the Libera me was only one example of her ability to infuse the text with colour and drama.
Musical and dramatic effects also stemmed from the way Andrew Wailes distributed his forces. With the two soprano lines filling the side choir stalls, the antiphonal quality of fugal passages was most effective. For the Sanctus the divided sopranos sounded just as angelic as heavenly forces should. Placing four trumpets at the back corners of the choir stalls also added to the power of the Dies Irae.
This has been very much a time of remembrance for the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic. Although there has been a focus on events of the World War I, the first performance of Verdi’s Requiem by the RMP was on May 31, 1939, three months before the start of World War II. St Paul’s Cathedral was the venue for their poignant Requiem for the Fallen concert, which commemorated the earlier war with Mozart’s Requiem as the major work. This very different setting of the Requiem Mass was performed with equal accomplishment; again, outstanding work from soloists, choir and orchestra, so capably led by Matthew Rigby, resulted in a memorable experience. Both owed much to the musical imagination and skill of the indefatigable Andrew Wailes.
In addition to being a moving tribute to Richard Divall, this Mothers’ Day performance was also a reminder of the cost of war to mothers.
Heather Leviston reviewed this performance of the Verdi Requiem by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic at the Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, on May 14, 2017.