Above: Angel With an Olive Branch; Hans Memling ca. 1480
Sunday afternoon October 30th, 2016 - The London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Gianandrea Noseda's baton in a performance of the Verdi REQUIEM at Geffen Hall. A packed house seemed pretty much enthralled by the piece, though oddly a few people got up and left in the middle.
Like every performance of the Verdi REQUIEM I have heard in the past twenty years, this one featured excellent work from the chorus and orchestra and an uneven quartet of principal singers. In a day and age when great Verdi voices are rare, one wonders why orchestras continue to program this demanding work...but I'm glad that they do, for even with a less-than-stellar set of soloists, the REQUIEM is thrilling just as a musical experience.
Singing in place of the announced Francesco Meli, Giorgio Berrugi offered warm, idiomatic vocalism. The ample-toned Vitalij Kowaljow made a most impressive vocal entrance and gave by far the most satisfying performance among the four principals. Daniela Barcellona, with a lovely presence, showed a voice that has succumbed to fluttery vibrato, seemingly as a result of tackling roles like Amneris and Dalila. Soprano Erika Grimaldi was seriously over-parted; her bio lists such roles as Mimi and Nedda, and for the REQUIEM you want a soprano of the Norma/BALLO Amelia ilk.
The performance commenced on a pianissimo hush, with the chorus whispering "Requiem..."; Maestro Noseda chose a very fast tempo at the point where the solo voices enter, slowing down at "Christe...Christe...eleison." His tempi all afternoon tended to be on the speedy side.
The Dies irae was fast and furious; trumpets stationed in the upper tier boxes added to the sonic thrill. Mr. Kowaljow's Mors stupebit darkly powerful; and - despite the vibrato - Ms. Barcellona made something out of the Liber scriptus (again, very fast): use of chest voice and a little 'tear' in the voice.
Mr. Berrugi sang well in the Quid sum miser, with distinctive phrasing from the bassoon. The conductor continued to speed things along, and he failed to accommodate his lyric-sized soprano in the big ensemble moments where she was unable to sail over the chorus and orchestra. In the Recordare, the vibratos of soprano and mezzo did not align pleasingly.
The tenor gave his best singing of the afternoon in the Ingemisco, the voice clear and the dynamics persuasively modulated; he sounded especially lovely at "Inter oves locum praesta" and the voice rose to a fine conclusion. Mr. Kowaljow's Confutatis maledictus gave me goosebumps: powerful, emotional singing with a touch of weeping and a huge climax. Mr. Noseda summoned up grumbling lower strings in the Lacrymosa; the four vocalists did not make a good entry at the unaccompanied "Pie Jesu domine".
There was slight slip in the overall level of singing in the REQUIEM's second half. Mr. Berrugi's Hostias was not quite as impressive as his Ingemisco had been, and the mingled voices of soprano and mezzo in the Agnus Dei produced some "bad vibes". In between, the Sanctus showed the chorus off to perfection. Mr. Kowaljow maintained the gold standard with his singing in the Lux aeterna.
In the silence that followed Ms. Grimaldi's "...sum ego et timio" a cellphone rang loudly twice; Maestro Noseda put everything on hold until the atmosphere of quietude was restored. The soprano sang bravely in the Requiem aeternam but lacked the spinto plush and vocal glamour the music needs. She was all but swamped by the chorus in the rigors of the finale.
Maestro Noseda is a very physical conductor, sometimes squatting down to lure the music from his players. In this afternoon's performance, he, Mr. Kowaljow, and Verdi himself were the heroes.