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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Verdi Project: Messa di Requiem

Verdi takes on the cosmos and the Church.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
It could be argued that the Verdi Requiem is his most...monumental achievement.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Following the triumphant reception of Aida,, Giuseppe Verdi had no more worlds to conquer. Aida marked the culmination of a long ambition to create a successful fusion between his own style and the grand spectacles that dominated the stage at theaters like the Paris Opera. Aida, with its blend of private anguish and public spectacle, fulfilled all of those requirements.
With opera off the table, the composer turned his attention to another project , the creation of a Requiem Mass to commemorate the death of Alessandro Manzoni. The first section completed was the Libera Me, originally composed as part of a Mass that was written (by multiple composers) in honor of Gioachino Rossini. With the Rossini Requiem laying unperformed, Verdi liberated the Libera Me for his later work.

Although the premiere of Verdi's Requiem was conducted (by the composer) at the Cathedral of Milan, the work is generally not performed in churches. The work continues, however to be popular with less ecclesiastical audiences and is regularly heard in the concert hall. (Recently, the Metropolitan Opera mounted the work in a simple concert setting with tuxedoed and gowned singers in front of a wooden concert baffle.) It requires a large chorus, orchestra and four vocal soloists: soprano, mezzo tenor and bass.

The score of the Requiem puts the Latin text of the Mass for the Dead against one of Verdi's most harmonically complex and richly tinted scores. From the raging flames that open the Dies Irae to the sublime plea for mercy sung by the soprano soloist in the final movement, the work runs the gamut of emotion that can be inspired by religious music. The composer's writing lends an immediacy of communication to the sometimes abstract concepts of the Latin text, painting the Day of Judgment with the same clarity as his countryman Michelangelo.

The work is in eight movements. It opens with a prayer of requiem ("rest") for the souls of the departed and expands into the Kyrie. (This is the only part of the Mass that is sung in Greek, an idea which came to the Roman Catholic Church many years after its founding.) This plea for mercy is repeated three times, in ascending and ever more elaborate choral arrangements, with interpolations from the four soloists.

The Sequence is home to the famous Dies Irae, the blasting depiction of the wrath of God that is the best known excerpt from the Requiem. (Hollywood seems to love to use it in movies, and it recently appeared in (of all places) Mad Max: Fury Road.) This terrifying minor-key chorus yields to a choir of offstage trumpets (the Tuba Mirum) and a blow-by-blow depiction of the end of the world. Quid sum miser is a slow aria for mezzo soloist but the chorus comes roaring back with Rex Tremendae.

The tenor is heard from in Ingemisco, a guilty plea sung against surging strings. He is answered by the bass soloist, who roars out the Confutatis maledictis, depicting the flames that await the wicked with the same gravity as King Philip in Don Carlos. The movement ends with a final blast of the Dies irae chorus, and the Lacrymosa, a quartet for the soloists, each of whom seem to represent some faint hope for humanity against an uncaring and unfeeling God.

From these depths, Verdi then takes the listener on a long climb. The Offertorio offers some respite from all this hellfire, and the Sanctus is positively cheery, with Verdi showing his abilities as a writer of upifting counterpoint. Verdi's gift for writing for two voices singing one melody dominates the Agnus Dei, which opens a cappella before being answered by the chorus and strings.

The work culminates in the Libera me, a final plea for mercy before the Lord with the soprano soloist representing all of humanity in one of the greatest of Verdi's arias. Needless to say, she faces against the unyielding and ungracious power of the Almighty, represented once more by  the choristers. And once more, they come armed with the slamming Dies irae theme. For mankind to survive, the singing must be divine indeed.

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