A Dramatic Requiem

GIUSEPPE PENNISI listens to Verdi in Rome


In my life as a Verdi fan, I do not know how many performances of his Requiem I have listened to in various countries, including in numerous American concert halls, as well as in Korea (during the eighteen years I worked in the World Bank). Thus, I had booked for the Requiem in the symphonic season of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia on 28 and 30 November and 2 December 2019. It was to be conducted by Mikko Franck, the Academy's principal guest conductor, and would have a stellar cast. Within hours of the performance (or almost), the conductor and the tenor had to cancel. Daniele Oren (in place of Franck) and Francesco Demuro (in place of René Barbera) came to the rescue. The Academy's management must be mentioned for responding to the emergency so quickly. Of course, on 30 November 2019, the night I was in the concert hall, I listened to something different to the (mystic) Requiem that Franck would have conducted. Oren is mostly an opera conductor. He became famous when he was very young at the Spoleto Festival and he was principal conductor at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma when he was thirty years old.

According to many Verdi scholars, primarily Massimo Mila, Verdi's Requiem differs markedly from other music for religious functions. It is a great secular and heroic melodrama of reflection on death: the twenty-eighth if you add it to the 27 specially designed by Verdi for the opera theatres or the twenty-sixth if you count them in chronological order of composition and representation. Like many prominent personalities of the Italian Risorgimento - Manzoni, Rosmini and a few others represent exceptions - Verdi was agnostic or at least 'doubtful' in religious matters. He had become so after the death of his first wife and had remained so for life. This is evidenced not only by his letters but above all by his works. The operas of the years closest to the Requiem are Don Carlos and Aida. In these operas, both the Catholic and the Egyptian Churches are represented as oppressive and ruthless. In La forza del destino (which takes place between cloisters and convents), the presence of God is confined to the last scene of the edition prepared for Italy. In Falstaff, the farewell to life is a fugue where the protagonist says that 'the whole world is a joke'.

To affirm and indeed to reaffirm the secular nature of a Requiem, composed for a timely occasion - the memorial of Alessandro Manzoni - does not mean to diminish its value and meaning. It is a great masterpiece whose central part, the Dies Irae, evokes the violence and vastness of the sound of a life intensely lived and whose conclusion - the sweet Lacrimosa and the poignant Libera Me - is a meditation on human frailty in front of the cosmos. The tragic and immanent nature of this Requiem appears in its dimensions when compared with Verdi’s four sacred pieces, so elegant in their balances but almost artificial.

Verdi’s Requiem conducted by Oren, and with sterling soloists such as Eleonora Buratto, Ekaterina Semenchuck, Francesco Demuro and Ain Anger, as well as the choir led by Piero Monti, differs from almost all the performances I have previously listened to. It is especially very different from those listened to in the Cathedral of Parma or in the Basilica of St Mary in Trastevere and other Churches when it was performed during the ecclesiastical celebration. It is a theatrical reading, a great melodrama about the loneliness of man in the face of death, on the search for the meaning of the earthly life he lived and the doubt of what awaits him. On the podium, Oren moves the stick (and his whole body) as if acting. The four soloists are around the podium and sing motionless, but their faces express drama and hope.

A scene from Verdi's Requiem at the Parco della Musica in Rome on 28 November 2019. Photo © 2019 Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini
A scene from Verdi's Requiem at the Parco della Musica in Rome on 28 November 2019. Photo © 2019 Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

The opera slant is felt from the introduction. The entrance of the choir is pianissimo, soon followed by a Kyrie that recalls the scene of the autodafé in Don Carlos. Dies Irae is the central part of the melodrama. The drama becomes tense in the dialogue between the mezzo (Ekaterina Semenchuk) and choir. Its central moment is in the trio Quid sum miser - Eleonora Buratto, Ekaterina Semenchuck and Francesco Demuro - and then again humanity looks with fear to the Almighty in Rex Tremenda. In the finale, after the Libera me Domine, Eleonora Buratto bowed her head, but Oren didn't immediately lower his stick. He held it suspended for about a minute, and then brought it down very slowly to induce a short but understood phase of meditation. The audience erupted in ten minutes of ovations.

Oren's operatic tradition can be felt in the violent, almost terrifying sounds of the Dies Irae - the proportions of which are almost those of an act of a normal Verdi work - and in the sweet instead sound in the Agnus Dei, the sign of eternal rest. The theatrical approach is always present. Verdi composes mainly for the theater and in Oren's hands, the Requiem becomes a sacred melodrama. The choir takes on more important dimensions than in Don Carlos or Aida: it becomes one of the protagonists. The four soloists, in arias, duets, in the great quartet, are not concert voices but characters in flesh and blood in the face of the mystery, and fear, death and hope of eternal life. All four performed at a high level. I would like to hear them in Rome more often.

Copyright © 2 December 2019 Giuseppe Pennisi,
Rome, Italy



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