Sacred & Profane: The Music of Giuseppe Verdi

Luisa Miller – Overture
Macbeth – Ballet Music
Otello – Ave Maria; Ballet Music
La forza del destino – Overture; Son giunta … Madre, pietosa Vergine
Four Sacred Pieces – Stabat Mater
Aïda – Prelude to Act One
La Traviata – Prelude to Act One
Four Sacred Pieces – Te Deum

Nuccia Focile (soprano)

Leeds Festival Chorus
Hallé Choir

Hallé Orchestra
Mark Elder

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 2 October, 2004
Venue: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

For this opening concert of the Hallé Orchestra’s new season, Mark Elder presented a carefully constructed programme to demonstrate both the latent spirituality of Verdi’s theatrical works and the sensuousness of his sacred music. Such were the power of Elder’s musical argument and the performances themselves that there was no doubting that opera and religion both stem from the same creative source: the realm of dreams and the imagination.

Elder cleverly chose to begin with that most classically poised of Verdi’s overtures, that to Luisa Miller, with its entire structure both derived from the opening theme and set forth in textbook sonata form – organic freedom and structural rigor coexisting in perfect balance. Next followed the ballet music from Act Three of Macbeth – the dancing witches and invocation of Hecate twinned in a Gothic balance of grotesquerie and lyricism through Verdi’s use of “restrained excess”. Which is how you could describe the performance: the dynamic playing kept on a tight leash by Elder so as to reserve the orchestra’s powers for what was to follow. And to dissipate any unspent tension, a lovely rendition of the “Ave Maria” provided a moment of repose, with Nucia Focile’s gloriously transparent soprano intoning the words of the prayer before taking flight in a more personal plea on her erstwhile lover’s behalf.

It was then back to the turbulence of the world with the overture to La forza del destino – a work which, aside from its extraordinary richness of orchestration and melodic invention, demonstrates the use of an overture to summarise the action to follow, thus ensuring the necessary ‘mind-set’ in the audience by providing an aural analogue to the ensuing stage action. Here Elder loosened the leash, with the different episodes and interwoven themes ably navigated by the Hallé.

The antiphony between Leonora and the monks in “Son giunta … Madre, pietosa Vergine” from Forza brought out the essence both of Elder’s argument and Verdi’s seemingly contradictory character: for as “Madame Bovary” was to Flaubert so was ‘Leonora’ to Verdi. And by having the ‘off-stage’ monks very much on-stage, Elder foregrounded the tension brought about by the close relationship between Eros and Agape, the fine line between erotic passion and extreme religious devotion. Here Focile made up for her relatively small voice by demonstrating an enormous expressive range, right from the agitated opening to the superb management of colour and dynamic in the final line “Pietá, di me Signor”.

This piece also provided the pivot towards the more ‘sacred’ part of the programme, heralded by a patchy though ultimately satisfying performance of the Stabat Mater from Four Sacred Pieces. The overall shape of the work was carefully delineated by Elder with great conviction, climaxing in a genuinely frightening “Die Judicii” – though the a cappella sections elsewhere revealed some insecurity in the men’s voices. Following the Stabat Mater was what Elder described as a “little intermezzo” before the Te Deum – the preludes to the first acts of Aïda and La Traviata. Here Elder was at great pains to point out how both pieces were really portraits of the inner spiritual life of Aïda and Violetta respectively, and his point was underlined by beautiful performances with luminous string playing and sensitive ensemble within the wind section.

Then followed the culminating work, the Te Deum, which for Elder obviously reconciles, like the Requiem, the twin nature of Verdi’s art: religiosity and theatricality. Here both chorus and brass came into their own with a rousing contribution to the forward thrust of the piece (the Sanctus being particularly effective), which finally came to rest in “non confundar in aeternum” (the chorus being joined by Focile).

A very successful concert then, with Elder showing himself as skilled a rhetorician in his meticulous planning of the programme as Verdi in his writing.

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