MSO: Verdi’s Requiem

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Published: 13th April, 2019

In addition to the joy of hearing one of the greatest choral works of all time, when performed by major orchestras such as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem enables audiences to hear exceptional operatic talent. For the 2013 edition, Sir Andrew Davis brought soprano Amber Wagner and mezzo-soprano Jaime Barton to thrill Melbourne audiences with their glorious lyric power. This year another American soprano, Leah Crocetto, added her name to those singers whose phenomenal vocal prowess raises a performance to a new level of excitement.

Placed between the chorus and orchestra, all four soloists had the vocal weight and projection to rise above the combined might of both, even at climactic moments. In particular, Crocetto’s upper notes bloomed and soared in almost impossible stratospheric splendor. Her Libera me, the final section of the Requiem, had it all: an urgent, passionate beginning, firm chest notes for the “in die illa tremenda” (in that awful day), soaring top notes and a beautifully floated, pure “Requiem” that set the tone for a deeply emotional ending. Not one member of the audience wanted to disturb the reverential atmosphere during the lengthy pause at the conclusion of the work – until, finally, a prolonged ovation erupted.

The work ended almost as it had begun, with muted strings and a chorus at its sensitive best, beautifully blended and warm toned. “Verdi’s Requiem” is a curious description suggesting multiple meanings: composed by him, composed for him a piece of liturgy re-made by him – all three would fit. Although the initial impetus for the work was the death of his friend Gioachino Rossini, it was the death in 1873 of writer and patriot Alessandro Manzoni, esteemed by Verdi as the other “great name”, that inspired him to explore a world which had always been part of his life and touches a fundamental chord in those raised in a Judeo-Christian tradition – even atheists. Despite the irony of a religious skeptic being able to depict the emotional intensity of man’s fear, awe and hope in the face of the Apocalyptic forces, Verdi’s musical imagination makes it a work that choristers love to sing and untold numbers love to hear; however, its challenges requires exceptional soloists, a large, well-trained chorus and an excellent orchestra such as the MSO if it is to be heard to best advantage.

Even without the support of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs as in 2013, the MSO Choir rose to the occasion splendidly under the guidance of Chorus Master Warren Trevelyan-Jones. It might have been made up of amateur singers and included a relatively small number of men, but there was no lack of commitment apparent. The softest murmur of cellos and blended male voices for the opening Requiem seeped into the auditorium as if from afar – a timeless plea for eternal rest with a quickening pulse that burst into full-throated life with “lux perpetua”. There was some rawness in the male chorus sound in this and later fortissimo sections but this somehow reflected the naked drama of the human condition. The Kyrie eleison quickly revealed the formidable strengths of the four soloists, with American Heldentenor Issachach Savage leading the way with strong ringing tone. His production tended to be a little compressed and lacking in ease at times, but at its best his voice shone with a beautiful burnished quality that provided a good match with the other voices.

Another singer with a background of Wagner and Verdi repertoire, German Okka von der Damerau, immediately impressed with her rich mezzo-soprano. There are many unaccompanied passages in Verdi’s Requiem and her musical assurance appeared to be a vital ingredient in keeping things on track in some ensembles. The largely unaccompanied Agnus Dei, where soprano and mezzo sing an octave apart can be arresting, sounding as one instrument with an eerie sense of harmonic resonance if the two voices match. Although there was not quite that degree of integration in this instance, their voices blended effectively to produce a thing of beauty.

Nicholas Brownlee invested the necessary drama into the bass part without ever sounding forced or overblown. His pleasing voice was steady, even and well projected throughout his range, and provided a reliable anchor in ensembles. He achieved a satisfyingly chilling colour of doom in the repeated “Mors” (Death).

The MSO was in fine form with antiphonal banks of trumpets in the upper side balconies and offstage creating an immersive experience of terrifying proportions for the first Dies irae, the thudding assault of the bass drum and swirling winds accentuating the effect. While all sections of the orchestra were enthusiastically acknowledged at the end, it was the Jack Schiller’s splendid bassoon playing for Quid Sum Miser section of the Dies Irae. Although Lawrence Renes’ beat occasionally appeared difficult to follow, his careful attention to details of balance, dynamic contrast and tempi that surged to climaxes in long arcs did much to enhance the emotional drama.

The recurring Dies Irae sections were rendered with passion and drive, the sopranos supply of unflagging energy sustaining the excitement right to the very end. Contrary to common practice, an interval had been advertised; fortunately, conductor Renes opted to play the work straight through. This might have challenged the stamina of the singers but it certainly makes dramatic sense and, in the event, seemed quite unnecessary as soloists and chorus held listeners spellbound until the very last note.

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Heather Leviston reviewed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on April 11, 2019.