The Royal Opera took time out of their schedule in the theatre to put on this performance of the Verdi Requiem on the main stage at Covent Garden, which they'll also take to Birmingham on 20 March along with the Britten War Requiem the following night.
Although the soloists were not of a consistently high standard, it was an especial pleasure to be able to see the orchestra onstage for a change, playing with their unusual incision alongside the ROH Chorus under Music Director Antonio Pappano.
The choice of this piece no doubt seems logical for an opera company: the Requiem Mass is usually described as being almost as 'operatic' as Verdi's stage works. But for me, that's always been a problematic idea. Since the majority of the Italian composer's works were operas, it should surprise nobody that his distinctive sound world should also pervade this piece, not least because it features several of the trappings of an opera such as verbal text, soloists, chorus and orchestra.
Yet is this really an opera? Huge sections of this piece strike me as completely unlike the compositional procedures found in Verdi's stage works. Though he was always Classically-aware, the contrapuntal writing in the Requiem is much closer to other religious choral works in music history than in the aria and ensemble forms – first introduced by Rossini – used in the operas. The 'Kyrie eleison', for instance, is written very strictly, with the interweaving of the four voices and chorus being far more reminiscent of baroque-style voice-leading than an operatic finale; the same goes for the fugal writing of the 'Libera me' and the 'Sanctus'. The power and passion of the piece, of course, are undeniably vivid, and the way Verdi brings back the 'Dies irae' several times in the second and seventh movements is unquestionably theatrical, but as John Snelson says in his programme note, religious ceremony shares something of the expression of communal purpose with an operatic concertato.
That does not mean, however, that this is just another Verdi opera, and Antonio Pappano's inspired but controlled performance focussed particularly on the Classical elements of the work. Acoustically, the stage was much improved by the addition of sound reflectors around the orchestra and chorus, so that one could hear every detail vividly: I've rarely heard such a well-shaped rendition of the opening muted cello line, and the whispering of the 'Requiem aeternum' was similarly effective. Co-ordination between chorus and orchestra was superb throughout – clearly Pappano is at one with them now – so the conductor was able to effect wonderfully broad crescendi and diminuendi in the strings during the 'Dies irae' and 'Libera me' sequences.
During the 'Tuba mirum' the trumpets, housed in boxes around the theatre, were almost impeccable and certainly eerie, while the wind writing during the 'Domine Jesu Christie' was beautifully contoured. Notwithstanding the power of the 'Dies irae', at times there could have been more focus and excitement, and for me there was a slight lack of reverence in the atmosphere of the performance – this piece really is a matter of life and death, after all – but the orchestra and chorus were clearly very well rehearsed and gave the utmost commitment to the concert.
The soloists, however, were another matter. It is a shame that Barbara Frittoli had to withdraw as the soprano soloist, since she has an outstanding record in performances of the Verdi Requiem. In her place, Micaela Carosi sang with dedication and expression but for me sounded ill at ease. That she was score-bound was completely understandable under the circumstances, but many of the high notes were insecurely pitched and lacked the richness of her middle register and a far more fearless and ferocious attack is needed for the 'Libera me'.
One of the curiosities of the event was the return of Olga Borodina to the Royal Opera for the first time since her departure from the rehearsals of Robert Wilson's production of Aida back in 2003 (though she has appeared as a guest with the Kirov since then). I particularly admired her stance during the Requiem, which allowed her to glance at the score when necessary but allowed her to appear solemn and serious, as well as engaging strongly with the audience. I've heard her perform a little more thrillingly, especially in feisty roles such as Princess Eboli, but her tone remains rich and firm and she came into her own in the 'Lux aeterna' and 'Liber scriptus'.
Piotr Beczala started the evening strongly with a well-projected and unstrained 'Kyrie eleison' and was both full-blooded and sincere in the 'Ingemisco', so the wobbly note at the start of the 'Hostias' was a shame. In his Royal Opera debut, Ildar Abdrazakov gave a perfectly respectable, if unexciting, performance, impressing mostly in the 'Confutatis'.
On balance, the work of Pappano, the orchestra and chorus was the main pleasure here – real ensemble work to treasure – and anyone who has the opportunity to hear the Birmingham instalment should not hesitate.
Photos: Antonio Pappano; Olga Borodina
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