The Royal Opera – Verdi’s Requiem

Verdi
Messa da Requiem

Micaela Carosi (soprano)
Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)
Piotr Beczala (tenor)
Ildar Abdrazakov (bass)

The Royal Opera Chorus

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano


Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 13 March, 2009
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Antonio Pappano. ©EMI Classics / Sheila RockThe cover of the programme for this performance announced merely “Messa da Requiem”, as it might “Don Giovanni” or “Tosca”. The work, which was once awarded a chapter in “Opera on Record”, is uniquely a member of the canon of the lyric theatre, deserving and requiring a world-class orchestra and chorus, as well as first-rate operatic soloists. It arguably benefits most from being performed by Italians. Here only the soprano soloist and the conductor fulfilled that condition; she fell short of her part’s requirements, he gave plenty of evidence of a powerful and idiomatic conception of the work but was unable to realise it completely.

The performance was thrown off-balance by the withdrawal through illness of Barbara Frittoli, a soprano who undoubtedly has the big guns, the vocal control and the sensitivity to deliver all dimensions of the role. Her replacement Micaela Carosi raised alarm with poor tuning from her first prominent utterance, the high A sharp in the ‘Kyrie’, and repeated the experience at virtually every exposed feature (the unaccompanied “Pie Jesu Domine” in the ‘Dies Irae’, the held A flat at the end of the ‘Offertorio’ and inevitably the B flat which should crown the a cappella passage with chorus before the concluding fugue). She displayed the best of intentions (in most of these cases she was responding musically to the composer’s request for extremely soft or tender singing) but the voice, backward in placing and slow to speak, was unable to fulfil them. Sometimes a note would be launched with purity but then turn sour. Though there were occasional dramatic flashes to make her appearance in lirico-spinto roles in major houses plausible, one lost confidence in her vocally at an early stage. In duet with Olga Borodina she was outclassed. The ‘Recordare’ could hardly have brought together two less well-blended voices.

Her disease seemed to spread to the tenor Piotr Beczala. His ‘Ingemisco’ was well characterised from the outset as the declaration of an abject sinner, while the length of his phrasing accentuated the poignancy of his self-abasement. At “inter oves”, however, where the oboe precedes him in announcing a change of tone colour, he did not follow it in following Verdi’s dolce marking. Then a frog developed in his voice at the start of the ‘Hostias’, which seemed to unsettle him when faced with the approach of subsequent soft, high entries.

Olga BorodinaOlga Borodina was an impressive alto soloist, avoiding ostentation either physical or musical and holding a restrained posture all evening. In the ‘Liber scriptus’, where some singers draw attention to themselves as an imperious presence, Borodina alternated her pontifical declamation of the fearsome text about the Day of Judgement with the subjective response of an ordinary sinner. Sudden pianos and diminuendos were given full weight, accented phrases such as “nil inultum remanebit” treated as thoughtful reflections on their meaning and the fragmentary repetitions of the word “nil” imbued with shivering terror. Later she brought welcome poise to the ‘Lux aeterna’. Unfortunately the unaccompanied entries in that section did not escape being afflicted by a nervousness which hung over much of the evening, Antonio Pappano unable to do his interpretation of the work full justice so preoccupied was he with nursing the last-minute substitute through the many difficulties that her role involves.

Ildar Abdrazakov, once past some slight doubts over tuning at his first entry, displayed great musicality and spiritual understanding of his music. ‘Confutatis maledictis’ was articulated with bite and precision, the tone colour changed for the plea “voca me” in line with the sweetness swelling from the orchestra. ‘Ora supplex’ was finely shaped and both the nobility of his tone and the distinction of his interpretation were confirmed by his pianissimo entry in the ‘Lacrymosa’. In ‘Lux aeterna’, Abdrazakov’s rolling phrases, combined with the trombones’ death rhythms and the timpani rolls, powerfully created the ominous atmosphere at the start of this movement.

The work has three complementary functions: a loving commemoration of the life of the deceased Manzoni, a subjective plea for salvation, and a monumental statement of religious truth about earthly existence, death and divine redemption. Pappano’s conducting encompassed all three, thankfully without exaggeration. Tempos were judiciously chosen, dynamic contrasts strongly marked: the thunder of the ‘Dies Irae’ was not underplayed but on each subsequent repetition one was made aware of it leading somewhere. Nor was that movement over-dominant in the overall structure of the Mass. Pappano’s direction of the orchestra emphasised both the shape of individual passages and the beauty of particular instrumental detail. The ‘Agnus Dei’ is basically a set of variations and the carefully controlled balance between voices and orchestra allowed in various instrumental combinations a growing picture to emerge of the peace for which God is being entreated.

The Chorus of the Royal Opera and Extra Chorus was a high-class, disciplined ensemble under the tutelage of Renato Balsadonna. The shuddering attack at “Rex tremendae majestatis” was followed a few pages later by a desperate fortissimo climax against which the hushed plea for salvation which follows stood out in powerful relief. The chorus’s combination with the solo voices in the ‘Lacrymosa’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ had a consistent intensity and fervour, while the choral-singers proved themselves equally adept in music of quite a different kind in the bounding jubilation of the ‘Sanctus’ and its polyphonic intricacies. With the augmentation of the melodic figures in the succeeding ‘Benedictus’ and ‘Hosanna’ the momentum was maintained. From great waves of sound to whispered incantations the chorus was an important protagonist. Through most of the work the choral body had cultivated the reverence of the choir-stalls. Interestingly the final fugue was launched by the choral altos with quite a different sound, that of sturdy, flesh-and-blood parishioners, a style adopted by each of the voice parts at their entry.

It is to be hoped that the forthcoming performance at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall will find Barbara Frittoli restored to the team.

  • Royal Opera forces perform Verdi’s Messa da Requiem at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on Friday 20 March and Britten’s War Requiem on Saturday 21 March
  • Royal Opera

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