As the world moves closer to the bicentennial year of the birth of opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, performances of his great 1875 “Requiem” memorializing Italian poet and patriot Alessandro Manzoni, will be part of the Verdi observances of the world’s great centers of European culture.
Manzoni’s most famous work I Promessi Sposi strongly influenced the creation of the national Italian language that we know today. His literary achievements were the linguistic equivalent of the political and military unification of Italy through the risorgimento, of which both Manzoni and Verdi were cultural heroes.
[Below: Alesssandro Manzoni in 1841, resized image of his portrait by Francesco Hayez.]
The “Manzoni Requiem” is Verdi’s one work that fits comfortably within the schedules of symphony orchestras. The “Requiem” provides the opportunity to assemble four great contemporary Verdi soloists and a large chorus to join the symphonic performance.
The project was originally assigned to Conductor Fabio Luisi, who was asked by the New York City’s Metropolitan Opera to replace the ailing James Levine as that organization’s acting music director. This resulted in an invitation to James Conlon, Los Angeles Opera’s music director, to lead the “Requiem” for the four performances scheduled during the San Francisco Symphony’s 100th anniversary year. [For a recent interview I conducted with Maestro Conlon, see: An Interview with Conductor James Conlon, Part 1 and An Interview with Conductor James Conlon, Part 2.]
[Below: a group photograph of the San Francisco Symphony in their orchestra pit at Louise Davies Hall, with the seats for the chorus above and the first rows of orchestra seating below them; resized image, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.]
The quartet of solo vocalists selected by the San Francisco Symphony was imposing. The operatic performances of three of these principals – soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick and tenor Frank Lopardo – are well known to American audiences, and I personally have reviewed their performances in Verdi operas in the past few months.
The soprano and tenor, Radvanovsky and Lopardo, had recently teamed in a Verdi performance at the Lyric Opera (see my review at 21st Century Verdi: Radvanovsky Leads World Class Lyric Opera “Ballo” Cast – Chicago, November 15, 2010). Radvanovsky has shown that, if there existed a position of “world’s consummate Verdian soprano”, she must be considered a strong contendor for such a title.
The soprano part in the “Requiem” was written for Teresa Stolz, the first Aida, and there are stylistic similarities in the music written for the two roles. Radvanovsky’s large spinto voice, with its extraordinary purity of tone in its upper register, shone in Verdi’s many theatrical effects, such as the Soprano’s sustained note in the Offertory.
The Soprano is the only principal who is singing for much of the Libera Me, the tumultuous music in the final section of the piece. (That segment is based on music that Verdi had written in 1868 for his part of an abandoned project in which various composers were to memorialize Rossini. When Verdi decided to compose the tribute to Manzoni, that music provided the core of the Requiem’s Libera me.)
Radvanovsky met both its dramatic and expressive expectations of Verdi’s music. (For other reviews of her Verdian roles, see: Licitra, Radvanovsky Gleam in Lyric Opera’s Glorious New “Ernani”: Chicago, November 5, 2009 and Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009 and Verdi’s New Champion: Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009.)
[Below: Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky; resized image by Pavol Antonov, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.]
If the Soprano owns the Libera me, I believe it possible to argue that the greater part of the “Requiem” is dominated by the mezzo-soprano, a part written for the mezzo who created the role of Amneris in the European premiere of “Aida”.
Dolora Zajick is rightly recognized as in the very top rank of contemporary Verdian mezzos, and her performance was lustrous. (For my review of her Amneris, see: Brilliant Cast, Colorful Production, Luisotti’s Masterful Conducting Enliven San Francisco “Aida” – September 19, 2010.)
[Below: Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.]
Frank Lopardo, who in recent years has moved from a more lyric repertory to a spinto repertory, approached the Tenor part reverentially. The Tenor, in the Ingemisco, sings the “Requiem’s” most famous music. Lopardo approached much of it sotto voce, very expressively, blending beautifully with the shimmering strings of James Conlon’s orchestra.
[Below: Tenor Frank Lopardo, resized image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.]
The fourth role was taken by Estonian basso Ain Anger, with a major career in Europe, who has appeared in the United States with the symphony orchestras of Philadelphia and San Francisco. I look forward to hearing his firmly placed basso cantante in operatic performance in the future.
[Below: Basso Ain Anger; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.]
The voices of the quartet of principals blended together in the “Requiem’s” many moments of hauntingly beautiful melody, but this is a piece that bursts periodically into the Dies irae and other moments in which expressions of Divine wrath are the dominant force.
The power of these passages, that the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, joined by the four large-voiced principals, portray with a fortissimo fury was truly an experience, that was intensified by the sophisticated, high tech acoustics of the Davies Hall.
At the “Requiem’s” end, Maestro Conlon held his baton above his head for a very long moment in which the entire audience stayed in rapt silence, until the lowered baton gave his permission for the audience to begin the well deserved ovations for the principals, chorus, orchestra and conductor.