Verdi's Requiem at the Royal Opera House
In a remarkable career spanning six decades, Giuseppe Verdi 1813-1901, composed nearly 30 operas, at least half of which are at the core of today’s repertoire. His Requiem, premiered in 1874, stands as a unique testimony to his artistic and human vision and is a setting of the text for the Roman Catholic mass for the dead as it existed until its revision in 1970.
The musical score calls for a large chorus, full orchestra and four soloists, being a tenor, soprano, mezzo soprano and interestingly a bass rather than a baritone. Verdi gives two of the most unforgettable passages of the score entirely to the chorus – the Dies Irae and the complex Sanctus. The text is monumental and is nowhere more apparent than in the final Libera me. The generated emotional power here derives from the solo soprano part, which climaxes with a run up to a high C that seems to embody the sum total of human fear and aspiration.
This performance was dedicated to 50 years of the granting of the Royal Charter to what was known in 1968 as the Covent Garden Opera Company, now known as the Royal Opera House. It was perhaps fitting that Verdi’s Requiem was chosen as the emotional centrepiece for this event. Verdi himself said ‘I have done nothing but write note after note to the greater glory of God’ and this was indeed a musical setting to the Catholic funeral mass. But of course it is more than that, much, much more, because of the power of the music. This Requiem at times is simply overwhelming and particularly effects those in the audience that might have suffered any bereavement or loss.
I had the privilege on this evening of sharing the music and emotions with my youngest 21 year old daughter, who was listening to this Requiem for the very first time. At so many points throughout the evening she shared my emotions, my sensitivities and my tears. Some years ago she lost her mother and I lost my wife. The splendour and intensity of this Requiem delved into the rawness of our souls and memories and thus the combination of the greatest of music and intent for which it stood, played its tune with our hearts and seemed to change the way we would perceive the world and its tragedies forever. The expression of this emotion through music is a recognition of the very existence of life’s journey itself and the ebbs and flows that all humans face in their worldly existence. This Requiem performance was a culmination of all these ebbs and flows and a suitable memorial to bereavement as indeed Verdi wished.
It was a superb night musically, led from the front by the Italian Conductor par excellence conducting the greatest Italian Requiem. Antonio Pappano’s constant care of the music, the score and the singers produced an evening of sumptuous sound and artistry. With nearly 180 people on stage, including the orchestra and chorus, this was a night where the sound flowed religiously and inspiringly throughout the auditorium.
The chorus and orchestra were superb, but then so were the very best of the four artists. The Hungarian bass, Gabor Bretz, produced the deepest of sonorous sound. The French tenor of Benjamin Bernheim has a wonderful Italianate tenor sound with a great falsetto – particularly in his solo rendition of ‘Ingemisco’ – and an easy gear change leaving us with a silky smooth sound throughout his range.
The American mezzo soprano, Jamie Barton, was outstanding in her role, from deep mezzo chest notes to thrilling runs and pianissimos. Her duets with the soprano of Lise Davidsen, particularly in ‘Agnus Dei’ were awesome and their voices together certainly did seem ‘To take away the sins of the world’.
This leaves us with the incredible soprano of the Norwegian, Lise Davidsen, who was a cast change at the last minute due to the indisposition of the soprano, Krassimira Stoyanova. And how lucky we were to hear her. Having just come from some smaller roles in Wagner’s Ring, this 31 year old soprano – Gramophone’s Young Artist of the Year 2018 and a Brunnhilde in waiting – gave us a performance of incredible substance and artistry. Her ability to sing pianissimo with Jamie Barton and at the same time soar above the orchestra and chorus in her finale ‘Libera Me’ was mesmerising. It is rare to find a soprano with the power, intellect and vocal capabilities to give the audience such excitement.
So as this emotional evening came to an end and the music played its final note the audience were left stunned in silence for nearly half a minute before they felt able to recognise the success of Verdi’s and indeed Pappano’s Requiem.