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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Concert Review: Solemnity Now

The Metropolitan Opera mounts an old-fashioned Verdi Requiem.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
James Levine in his element.
Photo © 2017 The Metropolitan Opera Press Department.
The fifty-one year-old auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera has certain drawbacks. Those became visible on Monday night as the venerable opera company presented the second performance this season of the Messa di Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi. This is a colossal setting of the Latin Mass for the Dead, the standard service for funerals in the Roman Catholic Church until 1970. (Like all the performances this week, this one was dedicated to the memory of the baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.)


The worthy members of the Metropolitan Opera chorus filed solemnly onto the stage at the start, taking their seats on little padded straight-backed chairs that might have been quickly borrowed from the downstairs commissary. Behind them stood a gigantic folding wooden screen, a huge acoustic baffle in the ugly shade that was once known as "tobacco brown" because it effectively hid smoke stains. It might have been original equipment, dragged out of a deep corner of the vast backstage for these concerts. 

In the front stood four plain music stands for the soloists: soprano Krassmira Stoyanova, mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. Arrayed before them in the orchestra pit, the tip-top players of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and their longtime boss James Levine, ensconced in the strange little mechanical booth that has become necessary since a spate of health problems nearly ended his professional career. He waited for quiet, he raised his baton and off the listeners went into the deep sound-world of Verdi's most ethereal and metaphysically demanding score. 

It started with hushed mystery, the chorus uttering "Requiem aeternam" with suitable solemnity. Indeed much of the glory of this performance goes to the chorus (prepared as always by Donald Palumbo) and Mr. Levine's forces, who coped with slow, meditative tempos and a musical fabric stretched to its absolute limit by the conductor. From the first bars there was something of the quality of his best Wagner performances in this, working through the slow-rising figures and grasping for truth. Mankind showed up in the Kyrie, his problems and peccadilloes embodied by the four soloists. In this movement, they were led by Mr. Antonenko's go-for-broke tenor and Mr. Furlanetto's burly, age-worn bass. 

Without a pause, chorus and orchestra careened into the thunderous opening bars of the Dies Irae, starting the long dramatic account of the Day of Judgment that is this work's best known movement. There was some great stuff here: the long account of the offering of the Book of Judgment sung by Ms. Semenchuk, Mr. Furlanetto's hollow, gutted "Mors stupebit" and the soloists' ascent into the celestial aether in the "Lachrymosa." This latter passage ends the Sequence, and is rewritten from music that was cut from the first version of Don Carlos.

Mr. Antonenko displayed an unusual side of his tenor instrument in the "Hostias" of the Offertorum, singing with a sweet upper register rarely heard in this house before. The chorus took to the fore in the Sanctus, a heavenly and perfectly ordered fugue. The two female soloists rose for the Agnus Dei. Ms. Semenchuk led off Lux Aeternam, another slow and evocative passage. However after the drama of the Dies Irae these shorter movements felt like minor events. Audience members checked the glowing screens of their hi-tech watches as Mr. Levine continued his tour of the heavenly Empyrean. 

The last stop on this celestial railway was the Libera me in which Ms. Stoyanova had the colossal and unenviable task of representing the entire human race against the angry, storming Judgment music of the Dies Irae. She did this with an actress' grace, putting emotion into each of her pleas for divine mercy and contributing to the sense of uncertainty that elevates Verdi's Requiem from a ceremonial piece to one of profound and universal struggle. This may not have been the largest voice to ever sing this music, but the meaning, beauty and intent was there. In the final balance of this critic's book of judgment, that was what really mattered. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.