~ Author: Oberon
Saturday December 2nd, 2017 matinee - It seems to me that it's been increasingly difficult, in recent years, to experience a live performance of the Verdi REQUIEM with a uniformly impressive quartet of soloists. Between the musical greatness of the piece and the relative infrequency of live performances of it, one might expect to hear the crème de la crème of singers in the principal roles whenever it's performed. Instead, singers seem to be plugged into the leading parts with little thought given to their suitability to the score's demands or their current vocal state.
The Verdi REQUIEM was first performed at The Met on February 17th, 1901, as a memorial to the composer, who had died exactly one month earlier. The singers were Lilllian Nordica, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Thomas Salignac, and Pol Plançon. Over the ensuing years, in performances both in New York City and on tour, the Met Company have given the REQUIEM more than fifty times, with great voices of each generation being featured: Emmy Destinn, Louise Homer, Giovanni Martinelli, Beniamino Gigli, Zinka Milanov, Leontyne Price, Carlo Bergonzi, Cesare Siepi, Florence Quivar, Renee Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti, and Samuel Ramey.
I last heard the REQUIEM at the Met in 1982 when the soloists were Leontyne Price, Florence Quivar, Placido Domingo, and John Cheek, with James Levine conducting. Levine was in the pit again today, but the magic of that 1982 performance pretty much eluded today's participants.
Levine's conducting may have had something to do with the fact that today's performance was less than thrilling. From our perch in the proscenium balcony box, his beat often seemed almost imperceptible. Of course, it sometimes seems like the Met orchestra doesn't need a conductor at all - they are that good - but there's a lot to be co-ordinated in a performance of the REQUIEM...to say nothing of underscoring both the dramatic and subtle passages with ideally-weighted orchestral support. Still, the musicians played so very well, and there were numerous moments this afternoon where individual voices or sections of the orchestra gave great pleasure; one of the most notable of these was the work of the flutes and winds in the "Agnus dei".
The chorus's first entry in the REQUIEM is barely whispered: "Requiem....requiem aeternam..." but moments later they burst forth in full cry at "Te decet hymnus", and for a few bars, a huge assortment of vibratos seemed to make the overall effect sound muddy. Things improved as the performance moved ahead, and the highlight of the afternoon in fact came early on with the trumpet calls and thrilling choral response in the "Tuba mirum", which was really exciting: the chorus had risen to the level we've been accustomed to in recent years. Incidentally, the choristers were seated onstage in an integrated way, men and women sitting next to one another in pairs rather being segregated by voice type.
In this season's performances of the REQUIEM at The Met, three of the featured singers - mezzo Ekaterina Sementchuk, tenor Aleksandr Antonenko, and basso Ferruccio Furlanetto - were refugees from an abandoned production of LA FORZA DEL DESTINO.
The soprano - Krassimira Stoyanova - has in recent seasons ventured into roles which I feel put too much pressure on her voice; she had been a particular favorite of mine in her true-lyric days: a superb Liu, Mimi, and Violetta. Taking on heavier repertoire has not done her sound quality any favors. Today, she seemed over-parted by the demands Verdi places on the soprano soloist, especially in a huge space like The Met. One of the great thrills of the composer's writing for the soprano part in the REQUIEM is to hear the voice soaring over the chorus and orchestra. Ms. Stoyanova was nearly inaudible in these passages; and while her singing in the more lyrical sections of her role was far more comfortable for her, the voice itself has become rather generic-sounding.
Ekaterina Semenchuk was clearly audible at every dynamic level. Her chest voice has assumed awesome proportions, and the top remains true, but the middle range can seem covered at times, and a bit nasal. Her diction was not always distinct - no, I don't speak Latin, but l've heard these words sung dozens of times and I know how they should sound, and what they mean. Stoyanova and Sememchuk were at their best in their two duets: the "Recordare" and the "Agnus Dei".
Aleksandrs Antonenko, as in his recent Met Calaf, was uneven. But at his best, his Met-sized voice made its mark, unfurling itself into the big space. His singing missed the exquisite shadings of a Bergonzi or a Vinson Cole in this music, but both the "Ingemisco" and the "Hostias" had ample tone and a sense of purpose.
I first heard basso Ferruccio Furlanetto in Boston in 1980 singing Ramfis in AIDA, It goes without saying that time has taken its toll on the voice; and indeed at first Furlanetto sounded out-of-sorts. But as the performance moved forward, he sang with increasing security and vocal command. Strong in the "Confutatis maledictis", he was genuinely affecting in the "Ora supplex et acclinis", with a slight sob in the tone - one of the few really moving moments of the afternoon. Furlanetto continued to reach me - on a level the other singers couldn't - in the "Lacrymosa", and later in the beautiful passage "Quam olim Abrahae"; in the "Hostias", his singing well-complimented that of the tenor. The deep lines of "Requiem aeternum" in the "Lux Aeterna" were sung with authority. Each time I have heard Mr. Furlanetto in recent years, I've thought it may be the last; his schedule shows Prince Gremin in ONEGIN in Vienna and Massenet's DON QUICHOTTE in Sydney coming up. If he never makes it back to The Met, I will be happy to have seen him this afternoon.
This season's Met performances of the Verdi REQUIEM are dedicated to the memory of the inimitable Dmitri Hvorostovsky. It's painful to think that Dima was to have been part of the cast of the canceled FORZA production which today's REQUIEM replaced. Had he won his battle, and had the FORZA been staged, we could have been seeing and hearing him today.
Post-Script: As it turned out, this matinee proved to be James Levine's final performance at The Met. In the days that followed, his departure from the Company was much-discussed. Eventually, he sued The Met in an effort to clear his name and collect damages for performances he had been contracted to conduct. The Met counter-sued. Things remain at at impasse; it's likely to take years before things are settled. 7/25/18