23 October 2018 (released)
27 October 2018
Any music-lover knows the great surging force of the ‘Dies Irae’ (Day of Wrath) which is the second section of Verdi’s Requiem, by far the longest part, and stays echoing in the brain long after any performance. Judgment Day was not a time for soft peddling, in Verdi’s view and Antonio Pompano gives the Royal Opera’s orchestra full rein, to mix my metaphors. It must, indeed have been an exhilarating evening for the orchestra as they were released from the pit onto the bright lights of the stage. Their prominence, fully frontal, pushed the hundred strong chorus, also in full throat, to the back of the stage where the tapering of the stage caused them to seem a little squeezed, although this is a comment not a criticism.
This was a magnificent, exciting evening, a worthy way to celebrate fifty years of the House’s Royal Charter. It was also a fund-raiser, a non-religious aim which would not have offended Verdi. Verdi was never impressed by organized religion and the Requiem, although written to mark the passing of two great Italians, the writer Manzoni and the composer Rossini, was always conceived as a stage piece as well as a Requiem Mass to be celebrated in church.
In an interesting article in the programme, called ‘Listening to the Sacred’, George Corbett discusses the direct link between music and spirituality quoting composer James Macmillan’s description of musicians as ‘the midwives of faith.’ In Corbett’s view Verdi was ‘anti-clerical but deeply spiritual.’ To a believer like myself, listening to the rapt beauty of the opening part, ‘Requiem Aeternam’ this makes perfect sense. Music has an innate spirituality which can be felt in many different ways. However to hear Verdi’s Requiem in, for example Westminster Cathedral as part of a mass with a coffin present can only strengthen the impact of its subject, that is, death.
The words of the Latin mass would not have been known to many in the Covent Garden audience. Visitors were there from all over the world yet they were totally engaged from the early ‘Kyrie Eleison’ (Lord have mercy) to the final ‘Libera me, Domine, de Morte Aeterna’ (Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death). This response was of course down to the music.
Verdi wrote the Requiem immediately after composing Aida. He was at the height of his powers as an opera composer and this shows. He was not a man for easy endings and, unlike other requiems the turmoil of death and fear of what may follow, stays uppermost in the music. It reflects the human passions in just the same way as his operas and there are reflected strains of some of his operas, in particular, of Aida in the conclusion of the ‘Agnus Dei’.
Terror and trembling is relieved briefly by a joyous ‘Sanctus’ performed with enormous grace and, one could almost say cheerfullness, by the orchestra and chorus. Sometimes the chorus split and sing across to each other at this point in order to give an even more lively effect. Even though this was not possible, the happiness of this hymn to God shone through, with it’s final ‘Hosanna in Excelsis.’
There follows the ‘Agnus Dei’ an appeal for the ‘Lamb of God’ to grant eternal rest. It is led by the soprano and mezzo-soprano, before being joined by chorus and orchestra who expand the melody. All four soloists rise to the occasion. Perhaps Norwegian Soprano Lise Davidsen is outstanding. But American mezzo-soprano, Jamie Barton, French tenor, Benjamin Bernheim and Hungarian bass Gabor Bretz, all allow this great sythesis of music and voice to flow in a gathering of sound and emotion. Jamie Bartin takes on the solo in the sixth section ‘Lux Eterna’, bringing a sense of exquisite calm, although this is undercut by timpani and bass. A word here to commend the trumpets who sound out throughout the evening as heralds of hope but also warnings of danger.
The seventh and final section of the Requiem, ‘Libera Me’, was in fact composed by Verdi for an earlier mass, although not in exactly this form. It both pays homage to the passing of two great men by using the grand ritual of the church while also leaving a sense of Verdi’s personal uncertainties. It is a powerful combination. As a dramatic presentation of the human condition within a spiritual context, .continues to grip audiences gripped all over the world as it has since its Milan premier in 1874.