Tuesday October 23, 2012 - I'd been looking forward to this performance for weeks; the Verdi MESSA DA REQUIEM is one of my favorite pieces of music, glorious from first note to last. I have experienced some thrilling live performances over the years, including three superb evenings at Tanglewood. Great conductors, great soloists and top-notch choral groups have placed their stamp on this grandiose and poignant score.
Tonight's performance will not fall in the memorable category, although the playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra was thrilling, and the singers of the Westminster Symphonic Choir gave their hearts and souls to the work's resplendent choral passages.
Opening the work with an achingly slow and very inspiring rendering of the score's first pages, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin went on to a very impressive performance of the entire work. He moulded the great arcs of music with a fine sense of grandeur and he and his players shone in the more introspective moments. Only his rather pretentious holding of the applause by not lowering his baton after a reasonable pause at the end seemed off-kilter; it wasn't that profound of a performance.
The REQUIEM is sometimes referred to as a 'sacred opera'; it is so very operatic by nature that, as with all operas, performances of it tend to stand or fall by its principal vocalists. Tonight we had an even split of a surprisingly excellent mezzo-soprano and a very fine basso, aligned with a soprano who seemed sometimes on the verge of distress and a tenor who labored valiantly to make his once-generous voice flesh out Verdi's magnificent melodies.
Christine Rice (above), a singer totally new to me, gave a very pleasing performance in every respect, Her timbre has a soprano feel to it, but she used a comfortably plush and resonant chest voice to make the most of her every phrase. In an evening of often wayward vocalism, I found myself sighing with relief whenever Ms. Rice stood up to sing. Basso Mikhail Petrenko might not have the sheer vocal heft of some of the singers who have preceded him in this music, but his sound is steady and warm and his vocalism is expressive. The opening pages of the Lacrymosa, where Ms. Rice and Mr. Petrenko joined forces, was the evening's purest sonic pleasure.
Marina Poplavskaya's opening phrase was painful to the ear; her voice sounded unsteady and ill-sorted. As the evening progressed, a feeling of lack of vocal support grew. Her voice often sounded pallid and tentative, and she used a piano approach to high notes to cover a spreading quality that emerged when she sang full-out. Shortness of breath was worrisome, as were vagaries of pitch here and there; her lower-middle register did not always speak. And some of the most thrilling moments of the REQUIEM, when the soprano voice should sail out over the massed choral and orchestral forces, went for naught tonight as Ms. Poplevskaya's sound was erased by the sopranos of the chorus.
Opera lovers can't help but be aware of Rolando Villazon's vocal struggles in recent seasons. This very likeable singer tried to sing with his usual generosity and passion, but the sound now is smallish and grey. The top does not bloom, but narrows instead. And he has a very strange method of attacking notes with a biting huskiness. Attempting to make the music interesting, he drew down the tone to a thread at times but it did not sound well-supported; and a patch of off-pitch singing in the Hostias was disconcerting.
It was a sad night for the soprano and tenor though the audience, typically, did not seem to notice anything was amiss. I wonder how much more impressive the evening would have been if different vocalists had taken on these roles. It was a squandered opportunity, in my view.
- The Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Music Director
- Marina Poplavskaya, Soprano
- Christine Rice, Mezzo-Soprano
- Rolando Villazón, Tenor
- Mikhail Petrenko, Bass
- Westminster Symphonic Choir
Joe Miller, Conductor