“Dies Irae,” the “Day of Wrath” second movement in Giuseppe Verdi's monumental Requiem (1874), is supposed to knock you on your ass. As the musical version of shock and awe, the vengeful Old Testament God delivers the last judgment to all sinners. He rends the earth, opens up graves, turns all to ash and drop-kicks the faithless into the pits of hell. Terrifying and cataclysmic, it's music the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah must have heard while fire and brimstone rained down upon them.
Houston Grand Opera's vision is not nearly wrathful enough. The cavernous Brown Theater is known to swallow sound (not nearly as well as the Hobby, though), but even with the orchestra raised a good ten feet or so above its usual pit position, the end of the world doesn't quite shake us as it should. It sounds muffled, even the bass drum, whose four blasts signal the end of the world. For a superlative approximation of the earth's volcanic farewell, listen to the antique recording by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra in the pre-stereo days of 1951. That will blow your socks off!
There were two people Verdi adored without reservations: iconic opera composer Gioachino Rossini (Barber of Seville, Cinderella, William Tell) and poet/novelist/nationalist Alessandro Manzoni. (You could also count a third: soprano Teresa Stolz, the Czech dramatic soprano who was probably Verdi's mistress, who originated the title role in Aida  and subsequently starred in his Requiem.) When Rossini died in 1868, Verdi suggested a requiem mass be composed for his idol by a consortium of Italian musicians. “Only Italians, no foreign hand,” Verdi insisted. Of course, those Italian composers not included on his list in the prestigious enterprise were quite unhappy, especially Stolz's lover, composer/conductor Angelo Mariani. Although the Messa per Rossini was completed, the whole thing fell apart at the last minute thanks to vanity, politics and rampant egos. The work was shelved and forgotten for a century.
However, Verdi had written a “Libera me” (“Deliver me”) for the Rossini mass, a plea for the dead body at its moment of burial, and when Manzoni died, Verdi resurrected the soprano aria and used it for the closing section of his new funeral mass to honor Italy's great author. No other composers were asked to contribute. This was to be Verdi's tribute to “the saint” by Verdi alone.
Verdi had retired, so he said, after Aida, but the lure of music was too seductive. He was also lauded as Italy's King of Opera since Rossini's death, and he couldn't stay away from the stage, even though this was to be a solemn piece, performed at Milan's Church of San Marco with Verdi conducting. The piece hardly saw the inside of a church since. Three days after its premiere, The Requiem per Manzoni, soon to be known as The Verdi Requiem, was performed at La Scala, Italy's premiere opera house, and then quickly flew to Paris, London and Vienna and into concert halls around the world. Sacred it is, elegantly so, but it's also dramatically of the stage, by the stage and for the stage.
Critics at the time carped that the Requiem was opera in church clothing; too huge, too demanding, too profane to be sacred. But no one else seemed to care. It is a sublime piece of music, whatever the venue: emotional, immersive, theatrical and absolutely gangbusters.
This could only have been written by Verdi. There are brazen trumpet fanfares that recall Aida, a gorgeous duet for baritone and tenor straight out of Don Carlo, grand choral passages that rival Nabucco, and gentle barcaroles that presage Falstaff. And then, of course, there's the “Dies Irae,” one of Verdi's crowning achievements in a lifetime of showpieces. Full of sound and fury, molto fortissimo to the max, it must have blown those first-nighters away, It still does. Or should.
In seven sections, Verdi writes his requiem as if it were an opera: solos, duets, trios and quartets for soprano, mezzo, tenor, bass and chorus with an orchestra of Wagnerian proportion. He follows the liturgical text of the mass with his own variations, but slyly transposes the meaning. A requiem mass is supposed to be a plea for the dead, but Verdi turns it into a plea for the living. This is not an homage to any particular individual, but a cry from the heart for all humanity. Save us, they sing, spare us thy wrath. We promise we'll be good. Deliver us.
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Apparently stricken on opening night with a bout of illness, mezzo Sasha Cooke's velvet voice purred through “Lux aeterna” (“Eternal light”), augmented by shimmering strings and flute that turned music. Soprano Angela Meade’s voice was trumpet-pure, even though she had to scoop into each Verdian high note, which somewhat tarnished her vocal halo. Tenor Alexey Dolgov's clean, clarion brightness cut straight through Verdi's prayer in “Ingemisco” (“I groan”); while bass Peixin Chen rumbled magnificently. Although a rambunctiously comic actor in last season's Marriage of Figaro, he seems to have been whacked by a crosier. His expression never varied, whether he was explaining the wicked (“Confutatis maledictus”) or praising Christ (“Offertorium”). He looked stunned, but sounded grand.
The chorus is center stage during Requiem, as well it should be. It's their show, too, a grand showcase for thunderous dynamism and whispery pianissimo. Under chorus master Richard Bado, they were strikingly good, booming out in wrathful pain or quietly pleading for peace. As they asked for mercy in the “Lacrymosa,” each succeeding row sat down. A most stunning effect.
Without doubt one of the most glorious works in the repertoire, Verdi's masterpiece – one of so many – should be full of superlatives, for it is grandiose yet subtle, bombastic yet graceful, passionate yet ethereal. HGO's production, under maestro Patrick Summers's moderated baton, lacked essential fire. Heaven was there, for sure, in the voices and the chorus, but the scorching heat of Hell wasn't. What's the use of redemption if we can't have a little sin?
Verdi’s Requiem continues at 7:30 p.m. February 17 and 18. Houston Grand Opera, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $15 to $240.