United States Verdi, Messa da Requiem: Leah Crocetto (soprano), Jennifer Johnson Cano (mezzo-soprano), Evan LeRoy Johnson (tenor), In-Sung Sim (bass), Opera Philadelphia Orchestra and Chorus / Corrado Rovaris (conductor), Academy of Music, Philadelphia, 2.2.2020. (RP)
Corrado Rovaris marked his 20th anniversary with Opera Philadelphia in an electrifying Verdi Requiem before an equally energized audience. The Italian conductor made his debut with Opera Philadelphia in 1999 with Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and was appointed its music director in 2004. Rovaris has conducted the majority of the company’s productions since then, in addition to maintaining an active career internationally. During his tenure, Opera Philadelphia has established itself as one of America’s most innovative and exciting companies, artistically anchored by a citywide festival held each September.
The chorus and orchestra generated most of the excitement in this performance, and fittingly so as they have been shaped by Rovaris. Credit is also due to Elizabeth Braden, who has been the company’s chorus master since 2004 and has prepared the chorus for over 40 operatic productions. Rovaris never shied away from the drama of the piece – the booming bass drum in the ‘Dies irae’ and the blazing, surround-sound trumpets in ‘Tuba Mirum’ delivered the visceral thrills – but overall his interpretation was introspective, in keeping with Verdi’s dictate that his Requiem was not to be performed like an opera.
Rovardi’s inward-looking approach was also apparent in the sensitivity with which the soloists sang and, in particular, the beautiful blend that the quartet achieved. The latter was all the more impressive as mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano was a last-minute replacement for an indisposed Daniela Mack. There are undoubtedly far starrier singers to be found, but spotting and showcasing young talent is part of the company’s ethos, and these four rising stars are already making their mark.
Soprano Leah Crocetto generally took a restrained, studied approach to vocal lines that rested in the middle of her voice, but above the staff it was another matter. The ease with which she rose over the combined forces of the other three soloists, chorus and orchestra was stunning. Cano, however, was the most impressive of the quartet: her command of her voice and subtle dramatic flair set her apart. Crocetto and Cano partnered effectively in the ‘Agnus Dei’, a musical and emotional highpoint of this Requiem, which portends well for their upcoming Norma for Pittsburgh Opera in April.
Tenor Evan Leroy Johnson has a particularly intriguing voice and is a local favorite, but on this occasion his natural reserve and prudent husbanding of his instrument came at the expense of vitality and intensity. His soft head voice eased beautifully into a richer, fuller sound, but he needed to sing with more oomph to make an impact. That was hardly the case with In-Sung Sim, whose rock-solid, powerful bass rang out clear and strong. The majesty of his voice and the drama with which he infused the music in the ‘Tuba mirum’ was equal to the blazing trumpets and full chorus that heralded his entrance.
The chorus was excellent throughout, although the basses had more vocal presence, or perhaps just more personality, than the other sections. Particularly impressive were the clarity and precision with which the ensemble sang the intricate fugue for double choir in the ‘Sanctus’. At full volume, the chorus’s sound was thrilling, especially in creating the fury of the ‘Dies irae’ that courses through the work. Their singing was equally moving in the more hushed and prayerful moments, such the ‘Libera me’, in which they provided a cloud of transparent, lustrous sound upon which Crocetto’s luminous soprano floated.
Apart from some patchy playing from the cellos in the ‘Offertorio’, the orchestra performed at an equally high level. The violins produced a shimmering sound that heightened the emotional impact of the Requiem’s more prayerful passages. The woodwind playing was likewise impressive, especially the bassoon solo in ‘Quid sum miser’.
It takes guts to program a Verdi Requiem when Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his fabulous Philadelphians are in residence just a block away, but Opera Philadelphia isn’t an artistic shrinking violet and did itself proud. The wonderful thing is that Philadelphians realize what a gem they have, for even on Super Bowl Sunday there was nary an empty seat to be seen in the Academy of Music. Then again, the Eagles weren’t playing.