Photo courtesy of the SLSO

The performance of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem (a.k.a. the “Manzoni Requiem”) this past Sunday (April 28) by Stéphane Denève and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) and Chorus reminded me of why I have always loved this remarkable work. While superficially a setting of the Latin mass for the dead, it is fundamentally a grand operatic tragedy, stuffed full of the combination of irresistible melodies and high drama that Verdi did so well. This was a Requiem of power, passion, and sensitivity—a fitting finale to a fine season.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

Soprano Hulkar Sabirova
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

Denève, as many of you probably know, got his start conducting opera and continues to make it a part of his career. No surprise, then, that his Requiem honored the work’s operatic roots and punched up its theatricality without ever compromising its musical integrity. The sonic balance among the chorus, soloists, and orchestra could not have been better and the symphony musicians were at the top of their game. It has been over a decade since the SLSO took on this challenging work, but the wait was worth it.

A major indicator of the Requiem’s operatic character is the prominence given to the vocal quartet. Most musical settings of the Latin text relay heavily on the chorus with soloists taking on secondary roles. Verdi flipped that, making the soloists the focus of the work and structuring the entire piece as an opera with the trappings of a mass.

When the critic Hans von Bülow described the Requiem as Verdi's "latest opera, though in ecclesiastical vestments," he meant it as a criticism. In fact, he unintentionally put his finger on what made the work an immediate and long-lasting hit. Verdi, the religious skeptic, had turned a ceremony of belief into an opera about facing the inevitability of death and (as Shakespeare’s Hamlet muses in his famous soliloquy) the uncertainty of what comes after.

Mezzo Judit Kutasi
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

Denève cast the roles of the quartet well. Soprano Hulkar Sabirova, mezzo-soprano Judit Kutasi, tenor Russell Tomas, and bass Adam Palka were all strong singers with solid operatic backgrounds that enabled them to communicate the emotional truth of the lyrics. Kutasi and soprano Sabirova were the most consistent in maintaining that link with the audience, but all four were quite solid. And Verdi, to be fair, gave the women some of the best material.

Kutasi’s “Liber scriptus” conveyed the sense of dread of divine judgement powerfully, communicating directly with the audience with only brief glances at the score. Palka relied more on the text for his “Mors stupebit” but was equally persuasive in describing the desolation of judgement day. Verdi combined these two solos into a single dramatic scene, using the same music for both, and ending each one with the quiet repetition of a single word: “mors” (“death”) for the bass and “nil” (“nothing”) for the mezzo. Kutasi and Plaka played it well.

Thomas brought out the pleading of “Ingemisco” beautifully, putting his expressive tenor to excellent use both here and in the “Offertorio,” where his voice floats in on the work “hostias” (“we offer you”) as though descending from heaven.

Sabirova sounded heaven sent, as well, on “sed signifier” just a few lines earlier. Her star turn, however, came in the concluding “Libera me,” a long dramatic aria that pleads for divine deliverance while expressing doubt that it will come. The genuine sense of dread in “Tremens factus sum ego” (“I am in fear and trembling”) was chilling. In most requiem masses, the last words sung are comforting. In Verdi’s requiem, the last words are “libera me”, followed by solemn chords in the brasses.

Tenor Russell Thomas
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

All this talk of the soloists should not take anything away from the heroic work of the SLSO Chorus. Verdi gave them their fair share of the spotlight—some of it extremely challenging.

The massive eight-part fugue of double chorus in the “Sanctus” comes immediately to mind in this regard. This was sung with impressive lucidity and in perfect dynamic balance with the orchestra, where little details like the passages for flutes and piccolo were clearly delineated. Overall, the chorus was as fine as I have ever heard it. Congratulations to the singers and to guest chorus director Benjamin Rivera.

And what a tremendous job by the orchestra! The score runs the gamut from the intimate to the overwhelming and demands a high level of playing throughout. The famous "Dies Irae" was a prime example of the latter Sunday, with the orchestra and chorus raising fortissimo musical hell (a friend in the chorus later remarked that it was the loudest he had ever sung). Add in the great whacks on dual bass drums, and the expanded brass section, complete with extra trumpets on the mezzanine level, and the result was music that really did sound like the end of the world. The brass and percussion section delivered the goods here, with precise performances that had a visceral impact.

Bass Adam Palka
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

At the other end of the spectrum were (to pick just two examples) Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo’s plaintive rising sixteenth notes accompanying the soprano, mezzo-soprano, and tenor in “Quid sum miser” and the shimmering violins under the mezzo-soprano in “Lux aeterna.” Wonderful stuff all around, with Denève keeping everything perfectly balanced.

Denève’s interpretation also showed his customary understanding of the value of silence as a musical element. At the very beginning of the performance he patiently held the downbeat until he got absolute quiet, giving the pianissimo opening, with the chorus singing sotto voce and the violins playing con sordino (muted), an impact it might not have otherwise. I think he also would have held for a longer silence at the end if the audience had let him, but after a performance like that I imagine one can only hold the applause for just so long.

The SLSO traditionally closes the season with something special and usually something big for the chorus and orchestra. Verdi’s Requiem, with its mix of hope and doubt, is an ideal choice for that slot, especially in times when the former seems in short supply and the latter much too abundant. A work in which the final words are a wistful “libera me” (“deliver me”) could hardly be more appropriate.

While last weekend’s concerts closed the official season, the music continues this weekend as Stéphane Denève conducts the SLSO and famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma in Elgar’s Cello Concerto along with Debussy’s “La Mer” on Friday, May 3, at 7:30 pm at Stifel Theatre. Tickets are available for the concert by itself or as part of a gala fund raiser that includes cocktails, dinner, and post-show dancing. Sunday, May 5, at 7 pm Kevin McBeth conducts the IN UNISON Chorus in a concert at Shalom City of Peace Church in Spanish Lake. Admission is free but RSVPs are requested. The orchestra wraps up May with "Bugs Bunny at the Symphony" on Saturday, May 11, at 7 pm at Stifel Theatre.

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