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Lightning, Storms and Forgiveness

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/23/2012 -  
Giuseppe Verdi: Messa da Requiem
Marina Poplavskaya (Soprano), Christine Rice (Mezzo-Soprano), Rolando Villazón (Tenor), Mikhail Petrenko (Bass)
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller (Conductor), The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Music Director)

Y. Nézet-Séguin (© Wikipedia Common)

When a music critic complained to Stravinsky that Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem was “too operatic, not religious enough”, the composer glared at him.

“Don’t you understand?,” he asked. “Verdi’s religion was opera.”

Whatever the definition, the performance last night by Quebec-born Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his entire international cast gave a performance that deserved those most wearisome of words, absolute praise. Neither Church not Theater, this Requiem offered a litany of terror, resignation, supplication and (probably what agnostic Verdi might have been averse to), absolute faith.

This was ensemble playing of the highest order. Conductor Nézet-Séguin had the gorgeous Philadelphia Orchestra on the edge of tension, with a timpanist who took those double-stick Dies irae booms like the (correct) sounds of hell. (Verdi himself had to go to the local circus to get a drum fit for his sounds!)

Westminster Choir director Joe Miller had a 130-odd person group which probably sung the Requiem many times before, but here the intonation was perfect. The opening Kyrie gave a mystical opening, and the sudden fortissimo on the word Eleison was like a shaft of sudden light. On the opposite end, when the men roared through the Rex tremendae, Mr. Nézet-Séguin allowed them to give the mightiest resonance.

This was a performance which never waned, could never meander. It all seemed inevitable, inspired, and the musicianship was incorruptable.

Did Mr Nézet-Séguin take that Sanctus double fugue too quickly? Absolutely not. But one was so thrilled by the whirling notes (Verdi was the ultimate contrapuntalist when he had to be) that one wanted it to slow down a pace just to hear the notes. Then again, Mr. Nézet-Séguin emphasised those slow grace notes in the Lachrymosa, giving even more vision

M. Poplavskaya (© Wikipedia Common)

Mr. Nézet-Séguin was as deft in his choice of soloists as possible. In fact, I cannot remember any performance where three of the soloists were so absolutely memorable. The Junoesque Russian soprano, Marina Poplavskaya is of course a favorite of the Met for her drama as much as her voice. Church music or not, this Requiem needs an Aida as soprano, and Ms. Poplavskaya gave it that passionate impetus. Yet so flexible was she that in the final purity of the Libera Me, that even that highest B flat was not only flawless and lyrical, but transcended the operatic.

Mezzo Christine Rice was singing church music, not opera, but he voice did her proud. And then came Rolando Villazón, a tenor who is also a favorite here. Did he sing that opening Kyrie in a single breath? It certainly seemed that way, and his upper ranges had the same drama as that of Ms. Poplavskaya. As for their duet in the Recordare, Mr. Nézet-Séguin made certain to keep a strict tempo, so those florid passages for Misses Poplavskaya and Rice, so what could have been a cadenza was a floral awakening.
The second Russian of the quartet, bass Mikhail Petrenko was more than competent in his voice, but the feeling was more operatically ominous–I kept thinking Iago or Mefistopholes–than liturgical.

Finally, one must come to Mr. Nézet-Séguin again. With a production so grand (and so well known) as the Verdi Requiem, a younger conductor might fear to break with tradition. Mr. Nézet-Séguin had the confidence to let himself go full force–with an emphasis on the word force. This was human drama at its most gorgeous, but more than that, this was a Requiem for the living–for us. Offered with raremusical accuracy, and unlimited emotional impact.

Harry Rolnick



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