Verdi’s Souls, Fighting for Salvation

United StatesUnited States Verdi: Requiem: Helen Lyons (soprano), Leah de Gruyl (mezzo-soprano), Daniel Weeks (tenor), Andrew Funk (bass), Philharmonia Orchestra, Chamber Choir and Chorale, Mark Gibson (conductor), College-Conservatory of Music, Corbett Auditorium, Cincinnati, Ohio. 1.2.13 (RDA)

Verdi’s Requiem is a monumental work—its musical language writ large and rooted in the operatic stage. It cries out in existential anguish hoping for peace and life eternal, while its sobering text, taken from the Catholic Mass for the Dead, invites reflection on mortality. This is a sacred opera in which the dramatic argument is not one of man vs. man but one of man in a life-and-death struggle with his own soul. Verdi, an agnostic, composed the Requiem in 1870, as he was entering old age. Otello and Falstaff would have to wait in the wings while the stage was set for a music drama about matters of the spirit.

The Requiem begins with a somber, meditative andbrief statement of trust in the healing power of faith, “Grant them eternal glory, O Lord.” The following Kyrie, set to the ancient Greek text Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison is an outburst of operatic vocalism interweaving all four solo voices with each other and with the chorus. The music of the Dies Irae evokes divine wrath and man’s fear of the ultimate day of reckoning with its shattering brass and drum outburst; the end of the world is announced by trumpets calling the quick and the dead to appear before the throne of God.

The mezzo-soprano’s ominous Liber scriptus, the tender Recordare for the two female voices and the tenor’s pleading Ingemisco could just as easily belong in Il Trovatore or Ernani. The awe-inspiring Confutatis maledictus offers the bass as good an opportunity as any such moments in the Verdi canon to thunderously utter cautionary words about what awaits the wicked. Zaccaria’s prophecy in Nabucco, “Nel futuro sul buio discern,” easily comes to mind. The heartbreaking quartet Lacrimosa was used by Verdi in the 1867 French-language version of Don Carlo. The final Libera me gives the soprano the lioness’ share of Verdi’s glorious music in what amounts to an operatic scena, engulfing the soprano in a maelstrom of sound, while her voice fights to be heard above the din—as a soul fights for salvation. The final pianissimo morendo on the words, “Libera me Domine di morte aeterna,” set in the soprano’s extreme low register, is as profoundly moving a depiction of the passing of a soul as anything in western music.

The College-Conservatory of Music assembled an admirable quartet of soloists, all four excellently acquitting themselves in a masterwork—just hearing the words “Verdi Requiem” raises all sorts of expectations. Mention must be made of Leah de Gruyl, the mezzo-soprano, a young graduate student whose vocal and stylistic command of this music bodes well for a promising operatic career.

The Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music student orchestra—most members no older than their mid-twenties—brought not only technical polish and musicianship but humanity and soul. Earl Rivers coached the excellent chorus, with Brett Scot helping in its preparation.

Mark Gibson, a conductor who can draw fire-and-brimstone music-making out of young people, got his orchestral and choral forces to play—and sing—the living hell, heaven and earth out of this imposing score. Since my arrival in Cincinnati barely three years ago, I have heard this sensitive maestro take on everything from Mahler to Beethoven to Kurt Weill to Puccini to bel canto chestnuts. In each genre and idiom he is an authoritative leader who brings keen intellect and impassioned musicianship to the podium. This writer is not alone in thinking that a Cincinnati Opera and a CSO guest conductor engagement for Maestro Gibson are more than long overdue. In the meantime and thereafter I’ll return to CCM again and again.

Rafael de Acha