(Verdi) Requiem - Philadelphia Orchestra, 10/23/2012
Poplavskaya, Rice, Villazon, Petrenko / Nézet-Séguin
James Levine, Renee Fleming, Olga Borodina, Marcello Giordani, Rene Pape, and the Met Orchestra and Chorus performed this piece a dozen seasons ago at Carnegie Hall (the afternoon of April 29, 2001) -- an orchestral show not, in my concertgoing, equaled since. Last night wasn't that, but it was definitely something.
Verdi's Requiem Mass, ostensibly for Alessandro Manzoni, capped off the composer's great mature run of operas, which gave us an amazing string of dramatic masterworks -- Boccanegra, Ballo, Forza, and Don Carlos -- in succession before closing with two odd works, Aida and this sacred piece. In fact Aida is probably the less dramatic of the pair: true to its dream of old monumental Egypt, the opera's characters can hardly even consider struggling as events roll to implacable doom, instead reflecting and lyrically responding to the spectacle as it proceeds. Within the Requiem, it's true, the solo singers have lost names & histories, and are dwarfed by contact with the limitless. But Christianity is and has, in a way likely unprecedented, been fundamentally concerned with the event -- and not just the ritually recreated & celebrated event(s) of its founding, as most religions are, but the ever-newly-enacted event of each individual soul's salvation/damnation. Even at the final, most hapless moment -- the day of judgment -- we are not (Calvinists aside) in a ritual roll-call but at the end of a live event, full of dramatic emotions and disruptions and the echo of decisive struggles.
Verdi seizes on this essential kernel to set the grandest of his great dramatic scenes: the Sequentia (Dies Irae), the heart and longest part of this piece. It is great and grand and terrible, but also endlessly personal, the close of each individual soul's event&story. And so in the greatest performances we hear the irreducible impassioned individuality of the solo voices as they move through those familiar Verdian turns...
On this night, only soprano Marina Poplavskaya's instrument carried this kind of charge. For all my complaints about her Met ubiquity and sometimes-infuriating humorlessness, Poplavskaya certainly has the tools -- musicality, sonic scale, a range of dark and cutting tones -- to make much of a dead-serious part like this one (or Elisabetta): and she did, lack of warmth and some imperfect top notes (she actually had to cancel the first Philadelphia performance due to illness) notwithstanding. Mezzo Christine Rice and bass Mikhail Petrenko have very nice, well-groomed voices, but didn't deliver much beyond that.
The most famous of the soloists was probably the worst. Rolando Villazon almost crashed on the very first line of the "Ingemisco", was missing and sliding around between pitches all over the place, and generally sounded like he'd patched together fragments totaling maybe 2/3 of a tenor voice: most of the bottom, not much of the top (which was never, volume-wise, a strength), and danger in between. The singer once notable for exquisite breath and control is still in a sad form to witness.
But the evening was Nézet-Séguin's (or, as the program notes would have it, "Yannick's" -- understandable given pronunciation issues). If his conception lacked some of the life-and-death urgency and particularized detail certain of his elders have brought (and perhaps the good-but-not-great solo lineup was significant), it nevertheless astounded by its coherence and sonic & conceptual clarity. The audience responded with rapt silence through the end and terrific enthusiasm afterward.
It's the same story as Nézet-Séguin's Met debut Carmen: I can't wait to hear what he does with this stuff both now and over the years.