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11 Mar 2013

The Verdi Requiem in Naples

San Francisco and Naples have much in common these days — streets with potholes, ever more gourmet pizzerias, homeless, etc., and, yes, Nicola Luisotti.

The Verdi Requiem in Naples

A review by Michael Milenski


This Verdi Messa da requiem in Naples was the San Francisco Opera’s music director’s debut as the neo-direttore musicale of the Teatro San Carlo, one of Italy’s more august musical institutions.The event was announced as a staging of what was to have been Verdi’s crowning achievement [the 73 year-old composer then further ornamented his crown with Otello and Falstaff]. It was a happening no serious Luisotti groupie could resist.

To be sure the foolish idea to stage this setting of the now outdated Catholic liturgy was later abandoned, and whispers of such an event at San Francisco Opera fell silent as well. Hear tell the production was to have been by the Catalan theatrical collective La Fura dels Baus operatically famous for a Grand Macabre at the English National Opera (samples may be found on YouTube).

The third performance of the Requiem (February 28) was briefly delayed by a wildcat strike by the orchestra and chorus protesting the elimination of funding for the theater’s corpo di ballo (corp de ballet), funding already sunk in a morass of scandal. The director of the theater came on stage to announce the delay to the great displeasure of one member of the audience who could not stop shouting vergogna, vergogna (shame, shame).

But the performance did begin, the whispers of Requiem aeternum (find eternal peace) first in the strings then by the chorus were clearly articulated stating that this was to be a vocal performance, not judgement day atmospheres. This spectacular Luisotti requiem prayer in fact emerged as one voice confessing, supplicating, imploring, begging eternal rest, with the implicit resolution that such reward was very much in question.

The first opportunity to establish the emotional chaos that set the dramatic character of Luisotti’s sinner comes soon, the male chorus of the Teatro San Carlo aggressively shouted Te decet hymnus, Deus (a hymn rises to you, God) in individual voices, a ragged sound that articulated individual anguish.

There was a lot to be worried about. The maestro unleashed the fury of the Dies irae in volumes possible only in old, very old opera houses (1716). The bass drum punctuation slightly anticipated the beat adding nearly intolerable tension, brass blurted out hidden threats. And the prayer began, four vocal colors placed directly in front of the maestro and directly in his control. Individually and jointly these voices supplicated forgiveness in the midst of raging fury of San Carlo’s huge, virtuoso orchestra.

Mezzo soprano Luciana d’Intino conveying that all is written and will be judged (Liber scriptus proferetur) exploited an enormous range of colors, gutteral chest tones, raucous almost spoken tones, snarling threats, beautifully voiced high climaxes, a voice in the prime of its expressive power that deeply invaded our sensibilities. Mme. d’Intino, of middle age, is one of Italy and Europe’s current greats who has not yet found her way onto the American west coast stages.

Argentine tenor Marcelo Alvarez delivered Verdi’s extended Dies irae tract Ingemisco tamquam reus (I weep because I am guilty) with unprecedented tenorial fervor (choking and weeping), not to mention hand wringing amidst evident physical torment as well. Mr. Alvarez, like no other tenor, ever, can take powerful vocal emotion to the edge of dramatic explosion.

Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow (Wotan in L.A.and Lucrezia Borgia’s third husband Alfonso in San Francisco) used focused black tone with minimum inflection to announce the day of judgement and describe the cries coming from the damned shrouded in flames, words that were maximally chilling in this cold blooded delivery.

The four singers stood before maestro Luisotti in rapt visual contact. An overwhelming synergy of artistic intention occurred that created one voice and body for all mankind in its final moments of existence. The performance was a massive statement, it was conceptually complete and artistically finished.

The Offertorium duet between Teatro Don Carlo’s concert master, Gabriele Pieranunzi and the soprano was of exquisite beauty. The Sanctus took off in an orchestral frenzy that left the chorus in the dust though it soon caught up and erupted into absolute delirium for the final Hosanna in excelsus. The Agnus dei was sung as if hummed, a prelude to the gentle Lux aeterna trio.

Soprano Maria Agresta in the first flush of an illustrious European career possesses a clear soprano of full lyric capability, and of great beauty that she manages with full confidence in passages of soaring tones, with much subtlety of volume from pianissimo to fortissimo. For Verdi the soprano voice is one of purity, not of complexity though dramatically there is the suspicion that such purity must harbor some guilt. It is to such a voice that Verdi gives the final Requiem prayer, Libera me, Domine (spare me, God, from eternal damnation).

This prayer, offered at the graveside, is the voice of the single, innocent soul against the fury of the Day of Wrath who in its guilt and fear explodes in a final, personal supplication for peace. The final lines in Naples were no longer sung by Maria Agresta, but spoken in desperate fear.

The Neapolitan audience seemed not to know how to react to all this shock and awe. It did manage some applause though it was hardly commensurate with the scope of the performance.

And finally the despotic maestro was not hampered by production.

Teatro San Carlo scheduled back to back performances on February 28 and March 1 (the third and fourth of five performances). Given his commitment to the role tenor Alvarez could not possibly have survived a next day performance, thus Hungarian tenor Szabolcs Brickner was scheduled to sing that performance. Said to be indisposed he was replaced by tenor Stefano Secco, well known to San Francisco Opera audiences for many roles including the 2009 Verdi Requiem conducted by Donald Runnicles. Mr. Secco is a very different artist than Marcelo Alvarez, of sweeter voice and temperament. Obviously uninitiated into the maestro’s idiosyncratic conception much accommodation was accorded Mr. Secco and a very fine, far smoother performance resulted. It did not approach the expressive magnitude of the previous evening.

Luisotti will conduct the Verdi Requiem in San Francisco in June. It could be the hottest ticket in a long time.

Michael Milenski

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