No music evokes the sense of loss offset by the radiance of hope quite as gloriously as Verdi’s magnificent Requiem, and no one can bring forth the depths of emotion and pathos in that Mass better than James Levine conducting the superb Metropolitan Orchestra and Chorus.
With four fine soloists – the soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, the mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, the tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, and the bass Ferruccio Furlanetto – the Met’s concert performances of the Requiem are a rare and special opportunity to hear Verdi’s masterpiece and assuage one’s own private grief.
Any Requiem Mass is, of course, part of the Roman Catholic liturgy to honor the dead and pray for the repose of the departed’s soul. The current series of performances of Verdi’s Requiem at the Met are in memory of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the great Russian baritone who died last week and who was a favorite of Met audiences.
It was to honor one of his own heroes that Verdi undertook the Requiem. Verdi had been a life-long admirer of the Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni from the time he had read the writer’s masterpiece I Promessi Sposi as a schoolboy. When Manzoni died in 1873, Verdi, not known for being overly religious, he proposed writing a Requiem for him.
The Requiem was first performed on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death at St. Mark’s Church in Milan, then was given three more performances at La Scala where, uninhibited by the surroundings of a church, the audience cheered and the Offertorium, one of the most beautiful passages of music ever written, had to be encored.
The Met has presented the Requiem over 50 times, the first four performances coming in 1901 in memory of Verdi himself, who died earlier that year. Other occasions also commemorated the deaths of beloved figures – President John F. Kennedy, for example, and most recently to Luciano Pavarotti, in 2008.
The current series of four performances of the Requiem had been scheduled to help fill in a gap created by the cancellation of a revival of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. But with the untimely death of Hvorostovsky from a brain tumor at the age of 55, they were dedicated to him.
From the mournful opening bars of the “Requiem, and Kyrie,” the Met Orchestra under Levine’s baton played with tender supplication, rising to a thunderous foreboding in the “Dies irae,” exulting in joyful Hosannas in the “Agnus dei”, and the final serenity of “Lux aeterna.”
Under Donald Palumbo’s direction, the Requiem is showcase for the always splendid Met chorus, from evoking a fury of a fire-and-brimstone hell more frightening than any Bible-thumping preacher could conjure in the “Dies irae” to a whispered plea for deliverance in the “Libera me.”
Orchestra, chorus, and Semenchuk delivered a musical equivalent of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the “Liber scriptum,” as the book of life is opened on the last day. Semenchuk could be the voice of Nemesis, the avenging angel, as she sings “to whom shall I appeal when even the righteous are not safe,” and her plaintive plea for mercy in the “Recordare” duet with Stoyanova is heart-rending.
Stoyanova has a silvery soprano that easily reaches the upper register and was especially moving in the final “Libera me” and in her duet with Semenchuk in the “Recordare.” Antonenko has a powerful tenor that booms like a biblical prophet, effective in the opening “Kyrie” and well-serving in the “Ingemisco,” but which could have been more muted in the “Offertorium.” And Furlanetto, a Met stalwart, delivers a chilling “Mors stupebit” and a grave “Confutatis.”