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La Sforza del Destino

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
02/11/2001 -  
Giuseppe Verdi: Messa da Requiem
Marina Mescheriakova (soprano)
Nadja Michael (mezzo)
Marco Berti (tenor)
John Relyea (bass)
Swedish Radio Choir
Eric Ericson Chamber Choir
Swedish Radio Orchestra
Manfred Honeck (conductor)

Italian opera is 400 years old this season and its greatest exponent left us exactly 100 of those years ago. Giuseppe Verdi created so many theatrical masterpieces that the only corresponding artist is his own beloved Shakespeare. Their careers are remarkably parallel as is their collective output. Each possessed, in addition to the obviously dizzying skill set, an exceedingly rare gift to be able to communicate on and to many different levels simultaneously. All can appreciate the beauty and power of their works and individual moments consistently chew up and spit out the audience member as in the works of no other practitioner of their respective art forms. Just take a moment to reflect on the depth and scope of Verdi: the inspirational fervor of Nabucco, the power of Boccanegra, the intensity of emotion surrounding the fates of Elisabeth, Violetta or Desdemona, the explosively cathartic endings of Trovatore, Aida, Don Carlo, the inspired use of music to exponentially enhance the characterizations of Iago, Philip, Amneris or Rodrigo, the totally heart-wrenching experience of Otello; you know the drill (and, oh, those death scenes!). It’s safe to say that more tears have been shed at Verdi performances than at those of any other great man of music. And here’s a challenge to all of my dear and gentle readers: tell me what work of the theater is as perfect in all dimensions as Rigoletto?

Like the funeral marches of Wagner or Beethoven, the Mozart Requiem or the Berg Violin Concerto, the mass that Verdi wrote for the people of Milan to honor the author Manzoni has served as his own personal death tribute (the beloved composer was twice buried in separate Milanese locations to its strains) and has also been employed to honor other famous and beloved departed figures, most recently Princess Diana. There has and will be a spate of performances of this work in and around New York this season. Since I missed the actual anniversary performance by the New York Grand Opera, my first encounter with this most spiritual of experiences is with the forces of Swedish Radio, worshipping on a Sunday afternoon at one of the grandest of all of the Gotham temples to Orpheus, the main concert hall of Lincoln Center.

Having already experienced the high degree of professionalism of this orchestra last evening and having thrilled to their extraordinary sound, I expected a lot from this afternoon’s reading. Although the work is highly operatic and features a quartet of soloists, the overriding star of the proceedings has to be the chorus. Unlike many touring bands, this group came prepared with its own highly competent and well rehearsed vocal ensemble, a congregation strong enough to have given its own a cappella concert on Friday. From the first I was struck by the beauty and power of these voices and instantly realized that they were the real reason for the tour in the first place.

Manfred Honeck, guilty of conductorial excess in his orchestral concert, was more better behaved this day, letting the somber religiosity capture our imaginations without forcing any more drama into the music than was originally put there by the composer. Certainly he let his instrumental forces loose for the fire and brimstone sections, complete with stereophonically thumping bass drums and angelic offstage trumpets, but his acoustical focus was always on the massive choirs and their leading role in the drama. It is always hard to put together soloists for these concert events; when these works are recorded we are all treated to the cream of opera’s crop, but in a less lucrative concert venue we must be satisfied with the luck of the draw. Today’s quartet was better than most, the Angus Dei duet between Mss. Mescheriakova and Michael of exceptional delicacy and the bass of John Relyea, recovered from his strain in a recent Rossini Stabat Mater, quite moving. But it was always about the chorus, their music often suggestive of the great ensembles in Otello to come. Honeck kept it all together throughout, no mean task when hundreds of performers are involved. Verdi was more than notoriously anti-clerical, he was positively irreverent, and yet in the throes of passion for his friend Manzoni he could summon up the fruits of his Italian upbringing to forge an angry dialogue with the heavens. Like Berlioz, his relationship with his creator is more Old Testament than his designated religion would presuppose and Maestro Honeck struck just the right mood of preternatural frustration and fury. Overall, this was a very tight and exciting performance. I am scheduled to hear at least three more Verdi Requiems in the next two seasons. I would be surprised if any of them far outdistance this one for sheer craft and energy.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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