Metropolitan Opera 2023-24 Review: Verdi’s Requiem
On the second night of the Met season, Yannick Nézet-Séguin delivers a Requiem to remember.By Chris Ruel
Credit: Richard Termine
As a mopey high schooler, requiems were my thing: Mozart’s, Fauré’s, Verdi’s — it was these that introduced me to choral music on a grand scale, and if not for them, in all likelihood, I wouldn’t have been sitting in the Met auditorium watching Met Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin lead soloists and the Met Orchestra and Chorus in a devastatingly beautiful presentation of Verdi’s masterpiece.
The Met’s concert, performed on the second evening of the house’s season, was personal in this respect. Verdi’s Requiem has been a faithful musical companion for decades, so when entering the theater, one thought ping-pong’d in my head, which was a silent dare — destroy me. When people exited my row at the end of the evening, I wanted to be a puddle over which they stepped.
Clean up in row Q.
From the downbeat, Nézet-Séguin was in complete control. Clearly, he had a vision for delivering a knockout performance, and he used every tool in his kit to make it so, with dynamics and tempi being the primary. The soloists, soprano Leah Hawkins, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, tenor Matthew Polenzani, and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy, all had incredible moments that far outweighed any misfires.
In the Orchestra, it was astounding the string section didn’t burst into flame as its members bowed with supernatural speed. The masosauric stage seemed too small to contain the full contingent of instrumentalists, with some inches from the wings. And, of course, there’s that small vehicle-sized bass drum, hit so hard a minor quake might’ve registered at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory 25 miles north. The percussionist — who’s hitting not one, but two drums simultaneously — would literally wind up and jump as he struck. Such was the transfer of force. Meanwhile, the Chorus was a sonic ocean whose currents alternated between the dread of the Day of Wrath and the peace of eternal rest.
When the piece debuted, some were less than thrilled — Verdi had turned the sacred into the profane with its quasi-arias that critics accused of being too romantic. The program notes feature Eduard Hanslick’s take on the work, “When a female singer appeals to Jesus, she shouldn’t sound as if she were pining for her lover.” However, the public reaction was the opposite, with audiences swooning over the work wherever it was presented.
Verdi’s rendition of a requiem proves the critics true, but wrong-headedly when listened to with the above criticism in mind. The dramaticism, the “pining,” and the operatic nature make the work fascinating.
Nézet-Séguin was at his finest. He was animated without being overly dramatic. His body language revealed a deep connection with the work. As trite as it sounds, he was one with the score. His gestures, from the violent cueing of the “Dies irae” to the gentle twinkling of his fingers and interaction with the vocalists — mouthing their lines and intimately communicating with the soloists a mere few feet away. He did a magnificent job shaping the music with rising and falling dynamics that moved wavelike from the stage to the audience. Along with the precise use of dynamics, Nézet-Séguin varied the tempi to build tension. In slower passages, there was no rush, nor was it molasses. Rather, he let each note live, breathe, and enter the listener’s consciousness before moving on. To create tension and release, he used these elements to tell a well-paced story with a clear narrative arc and a storyteller’s sense of rising and falling action inherent in the score as it shifts between terror and serenity.
After the Requiem and Kyrie, he paused, letting the beauty sit silently. Some mistook this in the audience, and believed it was appropriate to applaud, and when they did, the maestro raised his hand to silence the acclamation. For those new to classical music, it’s difficult to tell when it’s time to cheer and when it’s not. Audience members were clearly moved and wished to praise, but it broke the spell, which was disappointing because the pause sets up the terrifying “Dies irae.” Once the audience understood that applause should only come after the completion of the work, the silences between sections were so deep, breathing seemed unimportant.
The intensity of the presentation was such that the maestro, his band, chorus, and soloists needed a brief break. (The concert was performed without intermission.) The audience did as well. The rising and falling tension Nézet-Séguin perfected was too much. The Chorus took to their seats, the soloists likewise sipped water, and the maestro crouched on his haunches to catch his breath and prepare himself for the conclusion of the work. Nézet-Séguin wasn’t simply in charge; he was part of the fabric of the performance physically.
We’ve all seen conductors of different styles; some use big, sweeping, dramatic movements and stabs, while others are less animated yet achieve the same results. Nézet-Séguin, for this performance at least, fell into the latter category, with his wildest gesture saved for kicking off the “Dies irae.” In the main, his movements were reserved and put the focus on the music, not on podium theatrics.
The Met Orchestra and Chorus have nothing to prove; they are hands down the best in the business. If Nézet-Séguin was one with the music, the instrumentalists and vocalists were one with their maestro, feeding off his energy. Though not infallible (reviews of other appearances aren’t always glowing), this reviewer has yet to meet an Orchestra or Chorus member who hasn’t praised his musicianship. “Inspiring” and “collaborative” often describe his leadership style. You get the sense that there’s a high level of mutual respect: he knows his band, and his band knows him. This understanding can only lead to exceptional performances.
Take the musician who wallops those bass drums — spot on. Take the massive Chorus — 100 vocalists executing the intricacies of the “Sanctus” fugue and the raw power of the “Dies irae,” two numbers Verdi reserved for chorus only — spot on. Massive changes in dynamics that call for piano directly on the heels of fortissimo — as smooth as satin. The artists want to play and sing their best, and Nézet-Séguin has a leadership style that facilitates greatness.
Unfortunately, the soloists had weak spots, except for Ukrainian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy. The bass rocked the house, literally. The gravitas he lent the performance grounded the music at its most ominous. The “Tuba mirum” was a magnificent show of control, particularly when singing piano, such as in the opening lines of “Mors stupebit.” His performance was impeccable. He delivered his lines with excellent diction, did not hesitate, and kept the drama to a minimum, opting for his singing to be the primary vehicle of emotion.
Matthew Polenzani’s performance in the tenor role was puzzling. At times, he appeared tentative, and the thrilling tenor entrance in the “Kyrie” was garbled. “Kyrie” wasn’t the word that emanated from his instrument; only he knew what it was because it was impossible to understand. Twice, he wound up to sing, opening his mouth, ready to go … but at the wrong time. His glances at the maestro appeared to be driven by uncertainty rather than watching for his cue. However, his lyricism was melted chocolate and flowed wonderfully, and his top notes and fortes were powerful and sure. It was an odd brew of reticence and surety, with the latter more prevalent but the former obvious enough to notice.
Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill’s vocal qualities were well-matched with Polenzani’s, the pair sounding natural together even though Cargill is a dramatic mezzo and Polenzani a lyric tenor. The alignment mostly resided in the smooth, brassy sound. Cargill, a Grammy nominee, has performed in multiple Wagner operas, and there’s little wonder why. She has serious power and a broad range that dives deep and soars high with equal firmness, making her voice a velvet hammer.
The audience favorite was soprano Leah Hawkins, who had an okay outing yet wowed most. The crowd went bonkers during bows. This despite some vocal trouble. The six-bar sustained note in “Domine Jesu” was impressive until the end, when she seemed to run out of breath, taking a big gulp before continuing. She also got a little scratchy, moving her hand close to the base of her neck the moment it sounded iffy. The only person who knows what the issue was is Hawkins. From the seats, it sounded as if her emotions were getting the best of her, perhaps causing her to oversing, which is understandable given the intense nature of the work. If it was a matter of getting caught up in the emotions of the piece, perhaps it reflected those felt within the audience, deeply connecting them with her and making such blips inconsequential. Ultimately, the audience was the critic who mattered most, and they loved what they heard, such as the perfectly executed high C in the final “Libera me.”
The Requiem takes on profound significance in a world that seems especially tumultuous following a pandemic, societal changes, and political unrest. Dedicated to author Alessandro Manzoni, a key figure during the Risorgimento—a period marked by societal upheaval—Verdi’s Requiem mirrors this turmoil. The piece unfolds like a series of waves, at times turbulent and frightening, at others tranquil, like a serene summer pond.
Within Verdi’s composition, a persistent theme of hope emerges—a universal and enduring sentiment we hold fast in challenging times. Viewing the Requiem through this perspective, it transcends its religious framework, developing into a more humanistic masterpiece. It employs sacred language to depict a grand “opera” that explores the dichotomy of human existence—darkness and light. In this narrative, light triumphs, dispelling shadows of fear and uncertainty, and revealing a path towards a promising future for both individuals and society as a whole.