The Meymandi Concert Hall was packed to the rafters for the North Carolina Symphony’s performance of Giuseppi Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, and not just with an overflow audience. The symphony and two large choruses — perhaps 400-450 musicians in all — brought all the power and emotion of this gigantic work to the stage, and the music-making was thrilling.
Verdi’s memorial to the Italian writer Manzoni, who died in 1873, is not a transformative religious experience through music in the same way that requiems by Brahms or Faure, or Mozart, for that matter, are. This piece more closely resembles grand opera set to a religious text. This does not mean that the work is without sacredness; it only means that Verdi wrote first and foremost for the opera, and this 90-minute work is filled with musically dramatic sounds that seem more at home on the opera stage than in the cathedral sanctuary.
The reading by the North Carolina Symphony, North Carolina Master Chorale and Choral Society of Durham, along with four fine soloists, nicely combined music for stage and sanctuary, and Symphony Music Director Grant Llewellyn did a masterful job keeping the large cast together. The choruses were on two levels behind the orchestra, and many women were also in second-level sections to the side. Llewellyn could not simply conduct the musicians in front of him; he had to pay attention to the two massed choirs behind and above the orchestra as well.
The orchestra was strong throughout, as an instrumental bridge between sections, as an accompanying ensemble and in individual and small ensemble portions. The two choruses were obviously well-rehearsed, and their entrances, attacks, diction and releases rarely faltered. One good measure of a well prepared chorus can be found in the quietest sections; in the opening “Requiem” movement, for example, or the chant-like “Libera me” section near the end, the blend of voices was as soft as velvet, with no one section (or part of a section) more noticeable than another.
The four soloists brought considerable skill to the performance. Soprano Jane Jennings, mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips, tenor Andrew Staples and bass Raymond Aceto were front and center during almost the entire work, either in solo sections or in duets, trios or quartets.
Staples, a former choral scholar at King’s College Cambridge and making what is believed to be his first appearance in this country, brought a heavenly sound to his solos and small ensemble singing, with the most effortless and “swoopless” singing lines imaginable. Staples’ reading of “Ingemisco” was gorgeous, as was his portion of the duet with Aceto in “Domine Jesu Christe.” His solo introduction into “Hostias et preces tibi, Domine” was liquid.
Aceto seemed to put a little more effort into his part, but the result was satisfying. He led the chorus into “Confutatis” nicely, perhaps his best singing of the evening, and he had a lovely exposed line in the “Domine Jesu Christe” section, too. He led the chorus nicely in the “Tuba mirum” section of the “Dies irae.”
Jennings had what seemed like fewer opportunities to sing on her own, though her lines in duets and trios were quite nice, as in her duet with Phillips in the “Salva me, fons pietatis” line of “Rex tremendae” and the closing lines of “Recordare.” But then Verdi gives the soprano the gorgeous part of the “Libera me” movement, based on what he wrote initially for use in a requiem for Puccini. The soprano sings above the chorus with intense emotion in a repeat of the opening melody of the first movement, and Jennings gave a beautiful performance, meeting the wide vocal range required by the score. She has a pure voice that soars effortlessly.
Phillips’ performance was mostly spot-on, though her vibrato, especially in the upper register, occasionally led her away from pitch. But in the lower register, she had command of her material; such as in the “Agnus Dei,” in an a cappella scoring that she sang an octave lower than Jennings for extended lines. Their restatement of the main theme over high reeds was especially lovely.
The choruses added considerable weight to the performance, but the ensembles also provided delicacy when required, no small accomplishment when taking about 350 voices into account. The familiar “Dies irae” theme, which appears three times in the work, was delivered with appropriate gusto without straying into bombast. The multiple entrances in the “Sanctus” movement and the closing fugue in “Libera me” were executed skillfully and vigorously, but under Llewellyn’s direction neither went racing by.
Among other (random) memorable moments: the bassoon obligato by John Pederson behind the soloists in “Quid sum miser,” the emphatic brass lines scattered throughout, the oboe figure behind the tenor in “Ingenisco,” the soft and angelic soprano lines that came up in the chorus in several movements, the hauntingly beautiful “Lacrimosa” with its surprising “Amen” chord.
As noted before, Llewellyn certainly seemed to be in command of all the material and all the musicians, and he seemed to have a passion for the music. This likely was a labor of love, and it certainly provided a wonderful experience for the audience. The North Carolina Symphony, the North Carolina Master Chorale and the Choral Society of Durham, and the evening’s four soloists, offered a spectacular evening of music.