Verdi’s Requiem is a huge spectacle: an opera in search of a staging—and preferably by Cirque de Soleil.
Those who like their Mass for the Dead showy and grand will think of Verdi’s Req as the default Req. There is an in-built mise-en-scène to the work. The dramatic Dies Irae (the Judgment Day) unleashes its force at the beginning of the Sequence, but then reappears half hour later between Confutatis and Lacrymosa, and then later, in the concluding Libera me. It is used as a melodic ‘hit’, and to add dramatic accents. Tuba mirum has brass on and off stage, which create a theatrical space in the music with a sort of call-and-response. The Recordare, usually one of the softest movements in any Requiem, with the dying narrator begging Jesus (the one who sits to the right of the Father, not the earth-roaming, merciful one) not to judge her too harshly, is here of course soft too but also a virtuoso soprano-mezzo exercise reminiscent of Norma and Adalgisa. The Libera me at the end is a mini-scena, given to the soprano who soars and amazes—more ostentation than supplication, more aria than a prayer.
There *are* some contemplative movements too, not all is over-excitement–Hostias, or the tenor’s Ingemisco and the bass’s Confutatis, and the very opening which begins with a pianissimo chorus particularly stand out. But this Requiem won’t get you thinking about death, put it that way. There are too many resplendent things in it that entertain and comfort. If to study philosophy is to learn to die (Cicero via Montaigne), to listen to a Requiem is also something of the sort—a reminder, a reckoning. Not so with Verdi’s Requiem.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra was its usual competent self on Thursday night, under the baton of its very very very frequent guest conductor and former music director Andrew Davis. TSO is good at honouring its history—in fact, I wish it was less good at that, and have more guest conductor debuts. There seem to be a number of conductors who appear in just about every season brochure. Maybe skip your all-time favourites sometimes, dear TSO? What’s with the MSO’s seasons getting more and more unpredictable and diverse, how come they are beating us at that? Mariss Jansons’ one Canadian stop next year will be the MSO, par example.
On the good news front, the four soloists of the Requiem are all making their TSO debut with this concert. And they were uniformly good. I will begin by singling out the lyric tenor who among the three big-voiced soloists more than held his own. Frank Lopardo’s appealing timbre and evenly beautiful tone impressed in the Ingemisco solo, and all the trios and quartets, particularly in Hostias, arguably the contemplative peak of the entire musical score. As he’s no stranger to Toronto—he already sang at the COC—let’s hope we hear him again on concert stage.
The bass goes solo twice and Eric Owens struck the right tone with his interpretation: the considerable power of his voice in check, an almost humble, understated approach, without any overly dramatic flourishes. In contrast, the soprano is often asked to soar above the entire orchestra and the soloists and Amber Wagner gave a performance full of joy and zeal, never neglecting the technical precision. The score asks of the soprano some atypical jumps into the lower register, but Wagner handled them well.
Jamie Barton is such a distinctive voice and such a big personality, it’s almost too bad that we didn’t get to see her in a piece that gives the mezzo more to do. Still, her presence was notable. She particularly shone in the Lux aeterna (shared with the tenor and the bass) and the duos/vocal dances with the soprano—Recordare and Agnus Dei.
This was a fine performance by the Symphony and the TMC of a work that is likely to make you think of anything but the dead and the finitude.
As Achim Freyer well knows. Here’s the trailer for his (circus-y!) staging of Verdi’s Requiem at the Deutsche Oper.