Protestant Geneva Fails to Capture the Spirit of Verdi’s Requiem

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Giuseppe Verdi: Requiem, Soloists, Chorus of the Grand Théâtre de Genève, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Alan Woodbridge (Chorus Master), Edo de Waart (conductor), Victoria Hall, Geneva, 12.3.2015 (AL)

Svetlana Ignatovich (soprano)
Violeta Urmana (mezzo-soprano)
Riccardo Massi (tenor)
Roberto Scandiuzzi (bass)

Verdi’s beloved Requiem had not been heard in Geneva for a long time. On this occasion, four performances were given, and these evenings were eagerly anticipated by many. Seats filled up fast for this co-production between Geneva’s Grand Théâtre and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. In the end, however, the evening proved to be disappointing.

Most of the issues came from the singers. Geneva is suffering, as are many places in Europe, from a significant outbreak of flu, and Svetlana Ignatovich stepped in at the last minute for an indisposed Csilla Boross. The young Russian soprano has a nice middle register, but she was under audible pressure on the higher notes, was often caught a little flat and took too many liberties with the rhythms. Violeta Urmana announced that she was sick, but anyone who had not previously heard the Lithuanian mezzo would have never guessed she wasn’t at her best. Anyone who knows what she can really do would have heard a few blemishes here, but she had command, vocal authority and depth of feeling. Riccardo Massi was a disappointment. The Italian tenor has all the notes, which in itself is quite something, but he needs to rethink his technique as the sound remains too much in his throat. He was off-pitch in a few places but, more importantly, his phrasing was stiff. No emotion came from his singing.  Roberto Scandiuzzi was the clear winner. His authority, knowledge of the work and care for the words were very strong and revealed what his colleagues were lacking. In a Verdi Requiem, there should not be any winners or losers apart from the music: the quartet has to be strong and well-balanced, and this was not the case here.

Initially, Semyon Bychkov was to have conducted this program. He had previously led the OSR in a special Mahler 1st Symphony, but he called in sick for scheduled surgery and was replaced by Edo de Waart. The Dutch veteran showed his professionalism and experience. There was a lot of care taken with the balance which helped to highlight details in the score. The overall pacing was musical and, apart from a couple of issues with the brass, the orchestra played well for him. Best of all was the superb chorus of the Grand Théâtre. Their intonation was faultless, the opening “Requiem” and their handling of the fugue in the “Libera me” full of crispness and drama. They have again proved to be one of the Grand Théâtre’s greatest assets.

What was cruelly missing, however, was a sense of piety. This was a cold, analytical Requiem where Catholic faith and Italianate feeling were absent. Had this been a dress rehearsal, one would have left with a feeling that potentially a strong performance could be expected at the concert, but such absence of faith in a live performance was not acceptable. Geneva is the heart of the Protestant world. Calvin is still revered, and his presence is felt through the old city, at the center of which is an imposing, austere cathedral with no superfluous ornament. This evening gave us a stern and severe reading that Calvin would probably have approved, but Verdi’s spirit was just not here.

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

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