A Mesmerising Dialogue in Verdi’s Requiem

United StatesUnited States Verdi: Karen Foster (soprano), Kathryn Findlen (mezzo-soprano), Tim Culver (tenor), Nathan Stark (bass), Malone University Chorale, Faith United Methodist Church Schola Cantorum, Canton Symphony Chorus, Canton Symphony Orchestra / Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor). Umstattdt Performing Arts Hall, Canton, Ohio, 29.4.2017. (TW)

Verdi – Messa da Requiem

Composed in 1873-74, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem (Requiem Mass) poses a wondrous irony, given that he was openly disdainful of organized church worship. His wife, Giuseppina, once characterized him as “…not an outright atheist, but a very doubtful believer.” It might seem counterintuitive that this acclaimed champion of worldly opera – who had not composed any conventional sacred music since his youth – would render a work of such profound religious feeling.

But Verdi did worship the luminary Italian poet and novelist, Alessandro Manzoni, whose work was a galvanizing force in the movement for Italian unification and independence. Soon after Manzoni’s death on May 22, 1873, Verdi visited the grave and declared his intention to compose a requiem mass. The result, for all its structural adherence to Catholic liturgical rites and theological recitations, stands today as a masterpiece of deeply human expressivity. Had Verdi written a strictly religious work, or a new elaboration on the opera form? Critic and conductor Hans von Bülow was the first among many to accept the work’s dual nature, calling it “…Verdi’s latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes.”

It is daunting to get the right balance and clarity between orchestra, choirs, and soloists, navigating Verdi’s spectrum of spiritual, psychological, and aural dynamics. The monumental challenge was beautifully met by the Canton Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with the Malone University Chorale and Faith United Methodist Church Schola Cantorum, all under the impassioned baton of Gerhardt Zimmermann. In full force was his sensitivity to instrumental timbres matched to human voices – delivering the uncanny sensation that brass and percussion can really talk, or that strings can actually sing. The choirs and instrumental musicians were consistently mesmerizing in their dialogue.

Given the work’s operatic nature, the chorus might be regarded as witnesses to – or commentators on – the soloists, who in turn are presented as  distinct characters on a journey to Judgement Day. All four – Karen Foster (soprano), Kathryn Findlen (mezzo-soprano), Tim Culver (tenor), and Nathan Stark (bass) – were technically superb, singing with soaring urgency and tenderness. In a few passages, the blend of soprano and mezzo-soprano seemed unsure or slightly out of sync. But such moments never diminished the visceral passion and reverence that both of those soloists found in the music.

Punctuated by the bone-rattling cracks of bass drums, the recurring Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) interludes were a ferocious assault on psyche and soul. I’ve never heard the orchestra and chorus so piercing, so unashamedly loud. More than once, it seemed as if the walls of Umstattdt Hall were on the verge of collapse. Was this God speaking his judgement, or was Verdi intoning his own inconsolable rage at human mortality?

In the end, soprano and chorus united in a quiet, bittersweet prayer, Libera Me (Deliver Me), a plea to be saved from eternal death. As the music faded into a suspended hush, the words of Immanuel Kant came to my mind: “Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.”

Tom Wachunas

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