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A Solemn Season Finale

05/31/2024 -  & June 1, 2, 2024
Tres Elegies:
Octavi Rumbau: Elégie d’après Liszt
Joan Magrané: Un sonnet de Franc Fontanella
Raquel García-Tomás: Ara sí que ets divina
Giuseppe Verdi: Messa da Requiem

Josep-Ramon Olivé (baritone), Joyce El‑Khoury (soprano), Rinat Shaham (mezzo), Andrei Danilov (tenor), Dmitry Belosselskiy (bass)
Orfeó Català, Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya, Ludovic Morlot (conductor)

L. Morlot

Prior to the main work of the evening, Verdi’s Requiem, three contemporary vocal compositions were performed in the presence of their composers. The only projections in the Auditori were in Catalan, which is understandable, as the overwhelming majority of the public were locals. This is not the case at the Teatro Liceu and the Palau de la Música Catalana, both frequented by expatriate residents of the city as well as tourists. There, multilingual titles are offered. Though I don’t speak Catalan, it is similar enough to Spanish and French to understand the essence of the lyrics of these works. The theme of these vocal pieces was mortality, a perhaps macabre but appropriate choice given the evening’s principal work. The evocatively titled Elégie d’après Liszt alluded to the sensuality of death, a somewhat presumptuous concept. The music of the three composers was decidedly not avant‑garde and rather melodic, in the style of Debussy. The featured soloist was baritone Josep‑Ramon Olivé, who is endowed with an elegant high baritone. The public were generous with their applause.

The venue, the Auditori, is not in the historic center of the city as are the Teatro Liceu and the Palau de la Música Catalana. Rather, it’s located in the north of the city, close to the iconic Sagrada Familia. It was inaugurated in 1999 as part of an urban plan to create a new pole of urban development, Plaça de las Glòries, where the city’s three longest avenues intersect. It contains three halls, the biggest of which is named after the legendary cellist Pablo Casals and has a capacity of 2,200. This is where the concert took place. Impressively, tonight’s performance, the first of three, was sold out.

Verdi’s enduring religious masterwork premiered in 1874, a year after the death of novelist Alessandro Manzoni (1785‑1873), a man he immensely admired. The idea was considered earlier by the composer for a requiem mass to be performed in 1869 to commemorate the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. That project involved no less than thirteen composers, of whom Verdi was the most prominent. Among the others were Antonio Bazzini (1818‑1897), Federico Ricci (1809‑1877), Carlo Coccia (1782‑1873) and other now‑forgotten composers. The project never materialized, mostly due to conductor Angelo Mariani’s lack of enthusiasm, thus ending his long collaboration with Verdi. Rediscovered by musicologist David Rosen, the Messa per Rossini premiered in 1988, helmed by Helmuth Rilling. Verdi’s contribution was the moving final movement, “Libera me,” which was later to be reworked as part of his masterpiece of 1874, Messa da Requiem.

At the height of his career in 1871, and after the premiere of Aida in Cairo, Verdi had announced his intention to retire from composing, which fortunately did not happen (he subsequently wrote his masterpieces Otello in 1887, and Falstaff in 1893). The death of Manzoni in 1873 prompted him to incorporate his “Libera me,” composed for the aborted Messa per Rossini project into a complete Requiem mass. Three of the four soloists who premiered the Messa da Requiem had sung at La Scala’s premiere of Aida in 1872, indicating Verdi’s intention of using major voices for this work.

Since its first performance, many have argued this work is too operatic to be truly considered sacred. Hans von Bülow, Wagner’s champion and frequent conductor, famously called it “Verdi’s latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes.” Brahms disagreed, calling it a work of genius. Today, most see it as a sacred work with ostensibly operatic vocal writing. One compelling reason for doubting the work’s religious nature is Verdi’s renowned aversion to the Catholic Church. However, in this he was not alone among artists and intellectuals of the time. It’s true that Verdi had a particular dislike of the clergy and felt judged by them for his living “in sin” with soprano Giuseppina Strepponi for twelve years, until they legally married.

In his opera Aida, Amneris’s famous line “Sacerdoti: compiste un delitto... tigri infami di sangue assetate, voi la terra ed i numi oltraggiate... voi punite chi colpe non ha” (“Oh priests, you have committed a crime...Wicked tigers, thirsting for blood, you have outraged both heaven and earth...you have punished where there is no guilt”) validates that intense aversion to the clergy. However, this son of peasants from deeply Catholic Italy likely maintained some vestiges of faith. Moreover, he was sixty at the time of its composition, an opportunity ripe for reflection on his own mortality that the Requiem afforded him. It is noteworthy that some passages in Verdi’s Requiem are musically reminiscent of that aforementioned scene in Aida as well as the final tomb scene, “La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse.”

The four soloists were well-chosen for this demanding work. All four were persuasive, especially Lebanese-Canadian soprano Joyce El‑Khoury in “Libera me,” which expresses the soul’s desire for deliverance. Israeli mezzo Rinat Shaham was stirring in “Agnus Dei,” but she was not at her best in “Liber scriptus.” Both were compromised, whether by seasonal allergies or colds, but this did not affect their overall performances. The two managed a particularly inspiring duo in “Recordare.”

El-Khoury possesses the ideal voice for the soprano part in Verdi’s Requiem: a beautiful and distinct timbre, easily capable of communicating emotions, supple and able to soar into the stratosphere. After all, it is thought that each of the voices represent the four aspects of humanity: the bass, as wisdom, gravitas and judgement; the tenor, conjuring man in his ventures; the mezzo, conveying love and sensuality; and the soprano, the fragility of the soul.

Russian lyric tenor Andrei Danilov has a magnificent voice. He sounded especially expressive in the “Hostias,” the beginning of which is reminiscent of passages from Aida. Respecting the sacred nature of the work, he managed to create a poignant “Ingemisco,” without operatic ostentation, a trap which befalls many tenors, especially ones endowed with such powerful voices. As intended, one could feel in his “Ingemisco” the anguish of repentance.

Ukrainian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy performed with majesty and nobility in “Confutatis maledictis.” His deep, cavernous voice introduced an element of divine terror in this sacred work. In “Dies iræ,” he offered a truly terrifying portrayal of the last judgment.

Other than the four exceptional soloists, the equally illustrious star was the Barcelona-based Orfeó Català, one of Spain’s premier choirs.

French conductor Ludovic Morlot masterfully led the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya. From the hushed opening “Requiem æternam” to the thunderous percussion throughout the work, especially the stirring “Dies iræ,” the lush celli in the “Ingemisco,” and the sweet plaintive pizzicati of the double basses in the “Confutatis,” this is a first‑rate and well‑rehearsed orchestra. The overall performance was electrifying and the audience was ecstatic at its conclusion. Their applause warmly expressed their appreciation of the soloists, chorus and orchestra. This was a truly magnificent season finale for the orchestra and an appropriate commemoration for the 150th anniversary of Verdi’s Requiem.

Ossama el Naggar



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