The Shed 2019 Review: Verdi’s Messa di Requiem

Teodor Currentzis Leads a Truly Transformative Performance of Verdi’s Late Masterwork

By Matt Costello
(Credit: Kate Glicksberg)

The season’s final performance of the Verdi Requiem at the recently opened (and rather amazing) Hudson Yards Shed was something unexpectedly moving, with a very high emotional level. To be clear, this was not just some other Verdi Requiem.

Let’s start with the venue itself.

On this first visit, the Shed’s “McCourt” theater space appears grand, with a flexibility in both staging and seating to accommodate a variety of performances including dance, theater, opera, concerts, with the space flexibly bending to the nature of that performance. The manifesto of this new arts space makes it clear that not only will it explore all disciplines, but will also be commissioning pieces where the different artistic disciplines intersect.

This “Shed” is also designed to be a “people’s space,” with view to bringing those arts to all.

A Physical Performance

The forces arrayed for the performance included the musicAeterna orchestra and chorus. While the audience sat in the stadium-like seats, the stage was empty until the orchestra walked in, an impressive force dressed in dark cassocks that matched the religious grandeur of the piece about to be performed.

The violins stood throughout the performance and responded and reacted to the music physically, instruments in hand as if they were wrestling with the majesty of some of Verdi’s greatest music.

Likewise, the brass would stand at times for key sections as if also in reaction to the tidal wave of music about death judgment and salvation.
It was, in a single word, exciting.

The chorus matched the orchestra with a detail in the singing that is so rare in other performances of this masterwork. The hush of the opening was stunning in its hushed impact.

And when the thunder of “Tuba Mirum” erupted, that preciseness, the sharpness of the vocal attack, was incredible to hear.

For the audience too, this concert was also a very physical experience.

And a Visual One

And as befits the vision of The Shed, under Artistic Director Alex Poots and Senior Program Advisor Hans Ulrich Obrist, this “Requiem” was, for lack of a more apt word, multi-media.

The performance was paired with a commissioned film by the avant-garde film maker Jonas Mekas, who passed away before seeing the finished work, which was edited by his long-time collaborator Elle Burchill.

That film — shown on two screens above the orchestra and chorus — consisted of an array of images of flowers and plants, from so many environments from a crack in the sidewalk, to what looked like a dessert. Also, there were images of human brutality (sparsely used) and even Nature’s rage, by way of tsunamis and fires.

One might guess that — amidst this “Mass” for the dead, with hope for afterlife — the film was meant to show the beauty that surrounds us, perhaps ignored in many cases, but also paired with the dark and even deadly things that impact people on the planet. Select text from the “Requiem” was also used.

And did it “work?” Personally, the performers were so engaging, that images became secondary. Perhaps that was enough. Enough to think about the words, remind oneself of the beauty, while we are awash in the orchestral majesty of Verdi at his height.



And a Vocally Visceral One

In addition to one’s attention held by the massed forces on stage, the four soloists crafted performances of beauty, sweetness, and, when required, tremendous power.

Both soprano Zarina Abaeva and mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine shared a vocal interplay in both their solo and joint moments that was transcendent, warm, expressive, tender.

They were well-matched by tenor Mario Bahg, ably filling in for the René Barbera, who withdrew due to illness. The robust bass of Evgeny Stavinsky, as with all great Verdi basses, seemed to ground us amidst a sea of deep calm while the orchestra seemed to want to carry us away to that final judgment.

When the four sang together, they displayed that same precision, and definition that matched the chorus.

And in the finale of Libera Me,” the soprano walked offstage, to find a place, centered within the chorus, as she would lead those forces, with such a powerful voice in Verdi’s most stirring music.

When darkness encircled the stage at the end, the conductor now frozen in place, arms still raised, left the audience quite simply, stunned.

Speaking the conductor, here is a case of saving the best for last. Simply put, Teodor Currentzis was the master of it all.

With a lightness so delicate when needed, then a stirring fierceness as called for, this was his world, built by the immense talent of his ensemble, to be sure, but molded by his movements, as we watch his almost intimate interaction with the soloists and the rest of his forces.
It was not only gripping to hear, but also to see. It was not only dynamic conducting, but a total mastery of the work and forces that was beyond impressive.

Currentzis and musicAeterna have been developing a deep and on-going relationship with this profound work. The program notes describe that relationship — and this interpretation of the piece, a century and half after its premier — as “transformative.”

And it undeniably was. The great “Requiem” was re-imagined, yet still the same; details and power were unearthed, revealed, and finally, before our eyes and ears, made new again.


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