The Teatro Municipal Jorge Eliecer Gaitán is not among the most aesthetically pleasing of auditoriums in the city of Bogotá, Colombia. Dedicated to one of the great tragic figures in Colombian history, a man known for his support of the disenfranchised (his assassination led to one of the most prominent massacres in Colombian history), the theater is rather minimal in its design with two levels standing out among the sea of chairs.
On Sunday, July 23, 2017, this theater turned into a spiritual temple with the Filarmónica de Bogotá, under the direction of Leonardo Marulanda Rivera, delivering a knock-out performance of Verdi’s “Messa da Requiem.”
Originally dedicated to the memory Alessandro Manzoni, the author of “The Betrothed,” the Requiem is somewhat of an “odd” creation. Wagner was said to hate it upon hearing it and many withdraw from outright labeling it as a spiritual piece. In some ways, the work is more of an opera than the mass that it professes to be, its second “movement,” the famed “Dies Irae,” clocking in close to 45 minutes and traversing the emotional extremes one might associate with a Mahler symphony or, well, an opera.
But regardless of how you view this late-Verdi creation, there is simply no denying that when performed at the highest of levels, it is a most effective and entrancing experience.
In the case of Marulanda Rivera and his forces, which also include the Coro Filarmónico de Bogotá and the Coro Filharmónico Juvenil (that’s right, there were children performing as well), the experience was nothing short of sublime.
From the very first lines, but gentle whispers that slowly built to the cataclysmic opening and reprisals of the “Dies Irae,” each repetition seemingly shaking the hall more and more with its punctuated opening chords, to the weeping violin syncopations in the “Lacrymosa,” to the raucous joy of the brass in the “Sanctus,” to the intimacy of the “Agnus Dei,” you could feel the gamut of emotion delivered with uttermost profundity and care. Not only was every note perfectly placed, but every musical gesture was in service of creating a riveting experience for the listener.
In many passages, Marulanda Rivera opted for a slower tempo, particularly during solo passages for the four artists he had on hand (more on them in a bit). But then when called for, he built up tempi with swift precision, as was the case with the first return of the “Dies Irae,” the violins ostinato sounds grow more and more irritated, the tempo pushing and prodding until it devolved into the famous section.
One section that was particularly striking was “Tuba Mirum,” that grows out of the initial “Dies Irae.” Building from a seeming calm after the initial musical storm, the maestro’s balletic movements as he addressed the three different horn calls from around the hall gave a sense of something massive opening up. Each successive repetition built up, and slowly the conductor and his forces grew and grew, giving the sense of ascension to the listener, the “gates of heaven,” if you will, opening up as the movement arrived at its climax. While the “Dies Irae” exploded through the theater, this section, in many ways, the volumic climax of the evening. I could feel my seat vibrating.
The choral forces were also quite fantastic in their execution of the rather challenging passages Verdi throws their way. The opening “Requiem,” was little more than a hush and it was remarkable that this tiny thread of sound was delivered by dozens and dozens. But when asked to blow their lungs, figuratively speaking, they mustered up some special qualities. Most notable was the “Dies Irae” from the basses in the very last movement “Libera me,” the precise rhythmic strikes creating the sense of dread and fear that this Requiem is often noted for.
A Great Quartet
And what of the soloists, often major centerpieces of any “Requiem” performance? In this case, the company brought in two Spaniards, a Venezuelan and one Colombian, all of which were wonderful in their own ways.
Of the bunch, perhaps Venezuelan tenor Aquiles Machado has the most clout internationally, the tenor famous for his bel canto incursions. But he has also had his way with Verdi throughout his career, taking on a total of 15 operas, including the “Requiem.” His sunshine sound was quite a contrast from the other soloists, and he was most striking in the famed “Ingemisco,” essentially a tenor aria in the middle of the second movement. Machado’s interpretation featured a slower tempo, giving the entire section a more tragic and pleading tone. It also allowed for ample expansion of phrase, the crescendos and diminuendos clearly discernible. Machado’s vibrato in the upper range has gained somewhat of a wobble, but that did not deter from a powerful B flat at the end of the passage. But more impressive still was his phrasing of the “Hostias” in the Offertorium. Instead of going for full-bodied sound as the initial phrase climaxes and concludes, Machado, maintained a sotto voce quality throughout that set the tone for a moment of glorious spiritual intimacy. It also contrasted wonderfully with his more forward sound in the other section of the Offertorium.
Spanish baritone José Antonio López projected rather beautifully with a firm sound that demanded attention. He was authority personified, particularly in the “Confutatis,” the voice roaring through the theater and jagged rhythms delivered with great exactness. He showed off a sweeter sound in his own reprisal of the Hostias theme and showed a delicate color in the “Lux Aeterna.”
Mezzo-soprano Cristina Faus, also of Spain, sang with polish and vocal sheen in all of her solo passages. I was particularly riveted by her opening of “Lacrymosa,” the slow tempi perfectly suited to her creamy sound and elastic phrasing. One could sense pain building up throughout her initial phrases. She also combined splendidly with Colombian soprano Betty Garcés Bedoya in the “Agnus Dei,” their voices blending as one, the vibrato and rising and falling phrases fused together. They were indistinguishable, adding to the sense of collective prayer and spiritual union.
Speaking of soprano Garcés Bedoya, she delivered one show-stopping moment of glorious singing after another, her ascensions into the soprano stratosphere always angelic. She has a massive soprano that could rock any theater with its titanic sound, but she never used it fully on this night, hinting at it, but instead opting for greater intimacy in her singing. The “Libera Me Domine” was particularly noticeable in this respect as her enunciations of “Tremens factus sum ego,” hushed in their delivery, the sound losing its vibrant color in favor of what sounded like a tremble that corresponds with the text. At the close of this opening passage, her voice floated up into a blissful high note, reminiscent of a similarly sublime color she employed at the close of the “Lacrymosa.”
All in all, this was a night of incredible talent joining forces to deliver a spiritually and emotionally riveting performance of one of the greatest masterpieces by one of the geniuses of opera. There are no more performances upcoming, but those fortunate enough to experience the performance were no doubt blown away by the tremendous talent on display in Bogotá.