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25 Oct 2018

Verdi's Requiem at the ROH

The full title of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem per l’anniversario della morte di Manzoni 22 maggio 1874 attests to its origins, but it was the death of Giacomo Rossini on 13th November 1868 that was the initial impetus for Verdi’s desire to compose a Requiem Mass which would honour Rossini, one of the figureheads of Italian cultural magnificence, in a national ceremony which - following the example of Cherubini’s C minor Requiem and Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts - was to be as much a public and political occasion as a religious one.

Verdi: Requiem, Royal Opera House, 23rd October 2018

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Lise Davidsen

Photo credit: Florian Katolay

 

Indeed, Verdi was a vociferous participant in the conflict between Church and State, and, at this stage of his life, was probably agnostic. The death of Alessandro Manzoni - the poet and novelist whom the composer venerated, and whose I promessi sposi (1827), a patriotic text which was a forerunner in the development of a unified Italian language, is customarily considered to be a symbol of the Italian risorgimento - prompted Verdi to return to and revise the ‘Libera me’ that he had composed for the planned Rossini commemoration. A letter which the composer penned to Clara Maffei on day of Manzoni’s funeral, declared: ‘Now it is all ended! And with him ends the purest, the most holy, the highest of our glories!’ David Rosen (in the Cambridge Music Handbook to the Requiem) remarks Verdi’s mixture of nostalgia and pessimism, and suggests that ‘in bidding farewell to Manzoni, Verdi was also writing a “Requiem for the Risorgimento” and marking a passing of a whole generation and a whole tradition’.

This performance at the Royal Opera House of Verdi’s Requiem fulfilled several functions, and these were also not without political inference and context. As conductor Antonio Pappano explained in his opening address, the performance celebrated the awarding of the Royal Charter fifty years ago to what was then known as the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden; and, as Armistice day approaches, it commemorated the end of WWI and remembered those who died in that conflict. Pappano also urged us to remember the recent passing of the soprano, Montserrat Caballé.

This performance was not a religious ritual though, but, it was one of emotive, spiritual, as well as dramatic, impact and import. The ROH stage was crowded, the House’s Orchestra raised from the pit and the Chorus assembled behind - and, perhaps, pushed a little too far from the four soloists arrayed at the front of the stage. Not all of the choral text was communicated clearly and directly, and the Chorus members took a little while to get into their stride: the basses’ opening ‘Te decet hymnus’ was a little cloudy - just as, later, the closing fugue was a little flabby. But, the ROH Chorus made their mark when it counted. A fortissimo ‘Rex tremendae majestatis’ from the basses was countered by a wonderfully graded quiet response from the divided tenors. The double choir opening of the Sanctus also seemed rather woolly, perhaps because the singers were set so far back on the stage, but the ladies were light and precise in the subsequent counterpoint, carried aloft by springy string pizzicatos and deliciously light staccato motoring quavers which later swelled into roaring chromatic arcs.

Pappano conjured both operatic intensity and contemplative intimacy; notably, this was a spaciousness interpretation which offered time for apt reflection, though I didn’t feel that Pappano fully sustained the dramatic tension throughout the 90 minutes: the Lacrymosa seemed ponderous, the entry of the choir and percussion here, rather weighty. But, there was much orchestral and soli playing to admire. The muted celli sighed, barely a whisper, at the start, intimating terror, expectation and drama. The first ‘Requiem aeternam’ strove to obey Verdi’s instruction - il più piano possible: there was a sense of restrained weeping, a reverential hush.

The wrath of the Dies Irae was a terrifying energy: one admired the accuracy of the strings’ tumbling somersaults, the thunderous portentousness of timpani and bass drum, the punches from the horns and brass that hit with a full, fat fist, as well as the lovely solos subsequently from the clarinet and bassoon. The tricky opening of the Offertorio, for celli and woodwind, combined rhetoric and intimacy.

At the front of the stage the spotlight shone on the four young soloists, most especially on Lise Davidsen - in between ROH Ring cycles - who was deputising for the indisposed Krassimira Stoyanova. But, whatever the soloists individual merits, there was a real sense of the quartet working and communicating together, collectively. The trio ‘Quaerans me, sedisti lassus’ in the Dies Irae was full of penitence and relief - ‘You have saved me, by enduring the cross’ - and the quartet, ‘Hostias et preces tibi’ at the close of the Offertorio had the delicacy of a madrigal with respect to the placement of the parlando text.

And, so, to Davidsen’s performance. One of my colleagues commented on her participation in the Requiem at this summer’s Proms , admiring the ‘accuracy of her singing, the brilliance of her upper register and the ability to scale her dynamics’, and judged her ‘Libera me’ to be ‘a tour de force: exquisite strength, imperious high notes and a pianissimo that was ravishing. This is a voice that doesn’t just cut through the orchestra like a sabre; it rises effortlessly above it as well.’ - sentiments with which I concur absolutely after this performance. There is such astonishing power and steel, on show and seemingly in reserve, that it takes one’s breath away. Thus, one marvels that Davidsen can float such effortless arcs of gleaming sound: her entry in the Kyrie seemed to lift the music from its roots - Pappano’s tempo was definitely on the un poco side of animando - like a magnet, brightening and elevating the ensemble sound. She used vibrato judiciously and varied the tone expressively: there was a lovely sincerity at the start of the Recordare, above the cello’s easy lilt, and a well-judged warming of the tone as the phrases broadened. In the Libera me one could palpably feel the heat of the flame as she flung ‘Dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem’ (When You come to judge the world by fire) into the firmament; she was complemented by some splendid bassoon playing here, though the strings could have been even more fragile. The expansive breadth of Davidsen’s phrasing made the explosive interruption of the Dies irae reprise all the more theatrical; the return of ‘Requiem aeternam’ pierced like a moonbeam through the soft darkness of the low-pitched chorus - perpetual light might indeed shine on them and us. Verdi asks for a pppp dynamic for the high Bb, rather optimistically perhaps, but I did wonder about the appropriateness of Davidsen’s crescendo through the sustained summit.

American mezzo Jamie Barton was Davidsen’s equal with regard to sonic impact, and perhaps surpassed her in expressive nuance. Her entry in the Dies irae, ‘Liber scriptus proferetur’, was crystalline, and when repeated subsequently, stirring and powerful. Barton has an innate instinct for the drama that resides within the vocal phrase: ‘Judex ergo, cum sedebit’ floated aloft the resonant chordal brass before plummeting an octave, the sound delving into our hearts and souls. Her ‘Recordare Jesu pie’ was gentle and sincere; ‘Lacrymosa dies illa’ was poised against the sobbing throb of the strings. Davidsen and Barton intertwined sensuously in ‘Salve me’, though I’m not sure Verdi’s pianissimo was observed. And, the Agnus Dei was perfectly tuned and composed, though subsequently marred by some wayward and missing flute entries.

Frenchman Benjamin Bernheim offered a tender tenor in ‘Ingemisco, tanquam reus’ (I groan, like the sinner I am) conveying a sense of the frailty of man, and unfolded the narrative persuasively building to his plea, on a secure high B, ‘Statuens in parte dextra’ (Let me stand at your right hand). Hungarian bass Gábor Bretz made less theatrical or emotive impact. Despite the spooky, spiky lower strings accompaniment, his entry ‘Mors stupebit’ felt rather distant, and the emphatic statement in the Dies Irae, ‘Confutatis maledictis’, was surely not con forza? But elsewhere, Bretz displayed a lovely legato line, and real elegance and nobility - as in ‘Oro supplex et acclinis’ (Bowed down in supplication I beg You); and, in the Lacrymosa he offered a softness of tone against the crystalline sheen of Barton.

At the close, Pappano dared to hold the silence: a time for deep reflection.

This ROH’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem was broadcast live on BBC Radio.

Claire Seymour

Verdi: Requiem

Lise Davidsen (soprano), Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Bernheim (tenor), Gábor Bretz (bass), Antonio Pappano (conductor), Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Tuesday 23rd October 2018.

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