A performance of Verdi’s Requiem is a rather rare event at the Metropolitan Opera. That a run of the famed mass is currently underway with the company comes down to the fact that a proposed production for another opera was canceled.
But the timing could not have been better. With the unfortunate passing of baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Met was afforded the opportunity to use this run to honor his memory, a move that the opera Company made with great respect. Every program for the opening performance of the Requiem featured one leaflet – on one side was a picture of the baritone from his last performances of “Il Trovatore” and on the backside was a eulogy.
Obviously this generated more interest and emotional investment in the set of performances and the house was packed. The environment was solemn, the memories of the Russian superstar hanging in the air.
Restraint and Drive
The Requiem’s opening notes, as conducted by James Levine had a rather eerie feel, almost like a spirit floating about on strings to the mournful melody with which Verdi commences this massive undertaking. The maestro navigated through the opening movement of the piece rather methodically, the tempi strict throughout, a practice he would ensure throughout most of the piece. In fact, rubati were minimal and when they took place, they were rather subtle. That isn’t to say that Levine didn’t allow his singers to have their moments. He certainly did, most notably the high soprano note in “Libera Me” that precedes the return of the opening theme and ensuing fugue. But anyone that agrees with the claims that this work is opera disguised as a mass would certainly find little here to support that argument.
This led to a strong sense of drive in the overall mass, an interesting shift for Levine, whose tempi have been getting slower and slower in this romantic repertoire. Even pauses between movements were punctured to give a sense that one flowed into another. The end of the first movement was followed rather swiftly with the thunderous opening of the “Dies Irae” and soprano Krassimira Stoyanova ushered in her “Libera me domine” as her colleagues were sitting down after singing the final note of “Lux aeterna.” It was surprising but didn’t distract from the flow or impact of the Requiem in the least.
This sense of urgency and drive extended to the unrestrained approach to the piece’s louder sections. The work is most potent when it operates on extremes of emotion, much of it coming from the orchestra. Levine navigated these opposite forces beautifully, finding rich sound in the softest sections and slowly building to the volcanic climaxes fluidly. No climax felt overwrought or forced. One incredible example was the transition from the first “Dies Irae” to the “Tuba Mirum,” the brass chorale building from nothing until exploding with sound at the first orchestral tutti. But Levine wasn’t done. The energy built up and more power was exerted the momento the chorus entered, the entire ensemble finding a new gear, creating an apocalyptic vibe that sent shivers throughout the theater. The contrasting fugues in the “Sanctus” and “Libera Me” were uncannily similar in the articulation, linking them all the more closely through this execution. “Lux aeterna” was perhaps the most moving scene of all, the orchestral colors vibrant and lucid, giving the entire piece, if only for a momento, a sense of hope and light amidst all the darkness. But when all was said and done, the “Libera Me” was one massive tragedy, the conductor showing no restraint with most potent of sounds, the chorus and orchestra almost in battle with the soloist. The climax, where the soprano rises to the high C was an epic battle for the soul, ending with doubt and fear.
A Mixed Bag
As for the soloists, they were a mixed bag. Soprano Krassimira Stoyanova was elegant in her singing throughout, her soprano ringing warmly throughout the theater. She does not possess a mammoth sound and there were moments where the chorus easily covered her in the “Libera Me.” And yet, she managed an extra gear and rose to the high C quite vividly, her sound finding a way to wade through the oceanic choral mass around her. Her vocal chemistry with mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk was palpable, the two women blending as one in the “Agnus Dei” and playing off one another delicately in the “Recordare.”
Semenchuk’s big sound was effective throughout the early sections of the piece, but she really came into her own in the “Agnus Dei” and, especially, in the “Lux Aeterna,” where she sung one gorgeous line after another, her voice with a sunny quality matching the text of eternal light.
Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sang beautifully throughout the night, his sound round, full, and always clear. Even as the oldest of the group, it was astonishing to continue hearing such a polished instrument with such vigor and might. He had no qualms about throwing all his emotion into his singing, his “Confutatis” filled with accented phrases to emphasize the pain of the vocal line. In some ways his was the most emotionally engaged of the quartet, his voice always brimming with intense passion and emotion. And because of that it felt like he was singing a different style from the rest of the ensemble as he possessed little of the restraint that the others showcased.
As for tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, it wasn’t necessarily a night to remember. He started well in the “Kyrie” section, though it became apparent quite early on that his voice has developed a wobble in the upper ranges, especially on open vowels. In the ensemble moments he blended well with the other singers, particularly in “Quid sum miser” and the beginning of the “Offertorium,” but his exposed solo sections were unconvincing. “Ingemisco,” while brimming with longing, was unevenly sung, the tenor’s middle range one color and the other obstructed by the uneven pitch generated from the shaky vibrato. Closed vowels sounded fine for the most part, but anytime he opened up to an “Ah” sound, the pitch wavered. However, his most challenging momento came during “Hostias” in the third movement of the entire piece. Here Verdi calls for the tenor to sing “Con un filo di voce,” which is challenging for most dramatic tenors. Antonenko struggled throughout the section, his pitch inconsistent. One wondered whether his voice might give way at some point from its unsteadiness. He managed to complete the passage, but not without a clear sense of effort.
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus was, as per usual, absolutely incredible, the ensemble’s sound pouring into the theater without any sense of effort and with crisp pronunciation. The first enunciations of the Requiem were haunting in their gentle longing. The power and might that the ensemble drew during the opening of Requiem was chill-inducing. And the group never wavered from this constant emotional catharsis, providing one moment of brilliance after another all the way to the hushed final chord.
In all, the performance had enough incredible moments from both the ensemble at large and from the soloists to make it a fine tribute to one of the great opera stars of recent memory.