Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin in New York – Verdi’s Requiem

Messa da Requiem

Marina Poplavskaya (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Rolando Villazón (tenor) & Mikhail Petrenko (bass)

Westminster Symphonic Choir

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 23 October, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ©Pierre DuryFor his Carnegie Hall debut, and also his first New York appearance as Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin chose Verdi’s Requiem, which highlighted all of his strengths – experience in the concert hall and in the opera house and as a choral conductor, the ability to elicit a broad spectrum of colors from an orchestra, and a sense of theatre. The ‘Dies Irae’ was fast and furious, pushing the orchestral musicians to the limit. The excellent Westminster Symphonic Choir likewise lived up to the conductor’s demands, here and in the tricky double chorus of the ‘Sanctus’, delivering a powerful, perfectly blended sound, and throughout impressing with beauty of tone and perfect intonation.

Christine Rice. Photograph: Rob MooreNézet-Séguin also elicited an exquisitely hushed atmosphere at the very beginning of the work, and during the ‘Lux Aeterna’. He had thorough control of his forces; the orchestra and chorus could not have sounded better. However, in his determination to wring every last drop of drama from this work some of his speedy tempos took away from its spiritual aspects; the concluding ‘Libera me’ chorus turned into more of a demand than a plea. Just preceding it, the a cappella ‘Requiem aeternam’ would also have benefitted from a more peaceful atmosphere. It used to be a specialty of Montserrat Caballé to float the final B flat heavenward at Verdi’s marked pppp. Marina Poplavskaya had difficulty controlling the soft dynamic at this point, probably a consequence of having pushed her voice to extremes of volume during the course of this superheated performance. She had effortlessly and delicately produced the same B flat in the ‘Lacrymosa’, while she also powerfully soared over the forces with her ‘Salva me’. Poplavskaya’s darkish soprano blended extremely well with the rich mezzo of Christine Rice, who was the most impressive of the solo vocalists. Hers is a warm, sonorous voice with a focused core and an agreeable ring which allows her to project easily. A most expressive artist as well, her ‘Liber scriptus’ and ‘Lux aeterna’ were highlights.

The men fared less well. Although Mikhail Petrenko produced some interesting vocal effects – his half-spoken “Mors” was spine-chilling – overall his singing was uneven, vacillating between a pleasant-enough middle register and occasional hooting. Rolando Villazón was simply miscast. Even before he started to have vocal problems, his light lyric tenor would have been inappropriate for this dramatic work. Throughout this performance he was straining to match the volume of the other singers, and his solos fell woefully short of being satisfying. The ‘Ingemisco’ did not have the required power and ease, and the ‘Hostias’ was painfully flat in pitch. One was left to wonder why he had agreed to sing this part, which could also possibly endanger his vocal health even further.

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