The Operatic Requiem
by Paul D. Williams
April 19, 2008, Raleigh, NC: The crowds flocked to Meymandi Concert Hall on Saturday evening for the North Carolina Master Chorale’s presentation of the Verdi Requiem. But it is doubtful that many of them were there as parishioners and for the liturgical weight of the work. It could be that most attended because this masterpiece just happens to be one of the most accessible and engaging “operas” in all of the literature. Prepared to honor the memory of his hero (the writer Manzoni), the piece demonstrated that this composer was quite incapable of creating a work that was not highly dramatic.
The promotional brochure promised that all potential attendees would be visited by “moments of pathos, fear, terror and passion.” The orchestra of some sixty instruments and the huge vocal forces under Music Director Alfred E. Sturgis delivered on all counts.
Since practically every world-class soloist has at some time participated in this concert work, it would seem that today’s singers would approach these roles with trepidation. But the soloists here proved to be well within the class of their celebrated predecessors.
Mezzo-soprano Christy Lynn Brown brought forth a gorgeous tone of unusual depth. She was also able to call upon a powerful contralto register when needed. Her diction seemed the clearest of the singers. No distracting vibrato ever intruded. Her light perhaps shone brightest in the “Lux Aeterna.”
Has any soprano ever surpassed this Verdi performance by Brenda Harris? (She replaced an earlier scheduled soprano.) It is hard to imagine anyone negotiating those multiple challenges with more grace. Her voice exhibited uncommon warmth, even in the highest of the highs. There was never a hint of stridency. As might be expected, she was at her most impressive in the closing “Libera me.”
From as early as the opening quartet it was obvious that tenor Dan Snyder was a class act. The apparently effortless manner by which he created such powerful sound was astonishing. The biographical information furnished for bass Myron Meyers mentioned his “commanding elegance [and] rich warmth.” It would be difficult to improve that description. He possessed the pleasing ability to compete and be heard among the higher voices in passages where lower notes often tend to be lost. This tenor/bass pair brought to mind such great duos from the past as Tucker/London and Vickers/Raimondi.
The chorus was a typical Sturgis creation: A gigantic ensemble with the precision and crispness of a chamber group. They provided the “Greek chorus” foundation for the production, somewhat in the manner of, say, a greatly magnified “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from the opera Nabucco, or the “Scottish Refugees” from Macbeth. Late in the work, the singers and instrumentalists temporarily lost a bit of synchronism. That only served to make anyone who has ever participated in a similar enterprise feel better about his own frequent miscues. The ad hoc orchestra seemed at ease all along the spectrum from the softest pianissimos to the manic hammer strokes that signaled each arrival of the “Day of wrath.” One commentator has described this “Dies irae” section (it constitutes over half of the piece) as a “stupefying confrontation with death.” It was in the gorgeous “Lacrimosa,” salvaged by the composer from an earlier opera, that every aspect of the evening reached its zenith.
If the foregoing observations seem somewhat over the top, it is probably because here was a rare instance where such an enormous undertaking came off without an obvious mishap, thus defying normal probabilities. Sturgis deserves a round of applause for assembling such a cast.