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Powerful Verdi Opens Cincinnati May Festival

Music Hall
05/20/2011 -  
Giuseppe Verdi: Messa da Requiem
Christine Brewer (soprano), Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano), Stefano Secco (tenor), Morris Robinson (bass)
May Festival Chorus, Robert Porco (director), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, James Conlon (conductor)

(© M.E. Hutton)

The first bookend of the 2011 Cincinnati May Festival, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, was set in place May 20 at Music Hall. (The framing work is Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, which closes the festival May 28.)

Music director James Conlon led the May Festival Chorus,
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, tenor Stefano Secco, and bass Morris Robinson in a performance full of power and expression.

From my seat in the gallery, the view was grand and the sound glorious, if the experience was less than intimate. But that’s the choice one makes in the historic, 3,516-seat hall, built for the May Festival in 1878. It was not full, but attracted an appreciable and appreciative audience (guesstimate 2,700 plus or minus).

Verdi’s Requiem is superbly dramatic. Conlon, who has been May Festival music director for 32 years, gave it every shade of meaning and color, beginning with an almost whispered Requiem aeternam by the 157-voice chorus (including 25 members of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus). The sound tugged at the heart. The contrast with the scorching Dies irae was immediate and shocking, with four trumpets in the balcony (two on each side) for the apocalyptic Tuba mirum. There was dead silence afterward, before Robinson intoned a sepulchral Mors stupebit.

The work was full of such bracing contrasts: Rex tremendae, where the basses broke in suddenly with alarm; also the heaven-storming Salve me where the chorus sounded a universal plea. Every return of Dies irae set one’s pulse racing.

Brewer and Blythe made a powerful duo all evening, beginning with the Recordare blending their big voices with sensitivity and grandeur. Secco’s Ingemisco soared. The darker moments of Lacrymosawere followed by a consoling major chord on Amen, like a momentary benediction. After a short pause, the cellos introduced the Offertory, climbing high into their upper register to lovely effect.

The Sanctus, quick and with staggered rhythms at the end, burst in with a crackle of trumpets and bright choral exclamations. It was like the sun coming out, setting the scene for the softly pleading Agnus Dei, where Brewer and Blythe created lines of ravishing beauty and the concluding sempiternam, which wafted gently upward.

CSO Principal percussionist David Fishlock struck a booming bass drum on the return of Dies irae. Then it was Brewer’s turn to sing the last plaintive Requiem aeternam, complete with an admirably soft, high B-flat (a shade flat initially, but quickly corrected). She soared over the chorus and orchestra in the concluding Libera me, which filled every crevice in the hall before coming to a softly chanted end.

The May Festival continues with Leos Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and Antonin Dvorák’s Te Deum May 21, and a program of sacred works by the May Festival Youth Chorus and May Festival Chamber Choir May 22.

Cincinnati May Festival

Mary Ellyn Hutton



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