Good opera singers come and go but great ones are rare, and the Met remembered one of its best by dedicating all of its four performances of the “Verdi Requiem” to the late great and much loved Siberian bass Dmitri Hvorostovsky who was peerless as Germont in its Willy Decker production of Verdi’s “La Traviata “(1852-53). And the Met made an artistic coup by having James Levine, who has long thrilled audiences with his Verdi, lead it, and a marketing one by reducing ticket prices to get new blood into the house because a new production of Verdi’s opera “La Forza del Destino ” (1861-62) by the hotshot Catalan director Calixto Bieito proved too costly. The casting of four singers, three of whom are veteran performers of the work, as soloists also guaranteed a great evening in the theater. And let’s not forget that the Verdi ” Requiem ” (1868-1874) is one of the greatest pieces ever written — period — though purists and snobs, who are often one and the same, always vote for Mozart’s — because he died young, relatively unknown, and poor, while Verdi died at a ripe old age, world famous, and rich. Plus — shall we play the race card? — Mozart was a white central European while Verdi was from the Mediterranean south so he just had to be a primitive.
But Verdi’s operas are hardly the product of a primitive and they’re always about the perennial conflict between love and death, and so it should come as no surprise that his Requiem which he wrote to remember his writer friend Alessandro Manzoni, is a monumental and truly personal meditation on these two twin subjects which are really one and the same.Think of any love affair you’ve had to see what I mean. Many composers try to make big statements about love and death — the Czech Janacek comes to mind not because he’s Czech but because he’s not that good as in his deep? Makropoulos — but few succeed because they lack the personal depth, imagination and technical skill to pull it off. But Verdi had all of that in spades and not just because he lived his life in the theater but because his inspiration and genius were nonpareil. Sure his Requiem is beautifully written but it’s a workout for everyone involved and its basic and probing character will always make it sound urgent and dare I say it? necessary.
Verdi’s uncanny ear for color and space is clear from its very first bars. A descending line for muted violins I — II, violas, cellos, and sopranos, contraltos, tenors, and basses all “sotto voce” tells us that this will be a truly inward journey, and the Met’s strings and chorus made this sound, which seems to come from the depths of Verdi’s aggrieved heart, both otherworldly and visceral. And that sound, which progresses from the softest whisper — pianissisimo — to the loudest shout — fortissimo — throughout takes us to places few works of art can ever take us to. Music, like life, is always a confrontation with ourselves and others and it’s always a rapprochement with ourselves and others because taking stock of our affairs on both fronts is never an easy task. Verdi doesn’t make it a “be gentle with yourself ” New Age trip, and neither does life, and he’s always reminding us that ” media vita in morte summus ” — in the midst of life there’s always death.
The chorus, which is here divided into two soprano, two alto, two tenor, and two bass sections, made its points with heft and gossamer subtlety throughout the Requiem’s seven massive and transparently scored movements. Its orchestra, which includes four bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, timpani and bass drum — its hits in the second ” Dies Irae ” movement could easily raise the dead — played with point and polish. And the offstage band which is a crucial and not just for entertainment purposes alone feature in several of Verdi’s operas like “Rigoletto” (1850-51) added lots of sonic space, color, and weight.
Levine led with a steady and alert hand throughout though I wish I could have surrendered body and soul to his reading which paled besides that of another American conductor James Conlon who led the “world-class” San Francisco Symphony in Davies Hall which given the taste here — and yes I’m a native Californian — has always looked to me like a suburban version of a gym all beige 80’s bland. But it’s the music that matters not the looks like the latest huckster coming into town with goods he’s just dying to sell to you. For a price.
END 29.xi-16.xii.17 C 2017 MICHAEL MCDONAGH