25 February 2017

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — MESSA DA REQUIEM (J. Bowen Gardner, S. Foley Davis, D. Stein, D. Weigel; UNCG Choral Ensembles & Orchestra; UNCG Auditorium, 24 February 2017)

IN PERFORMANCE: Giuseppe Verdi (far right) conducts the 'Ingemisco' in his MESSA DA REQUIEM at Teatro alla Scala in 1874 [Uncredited engraving; public domain]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Messa da RequiemJill Bowen Gardner (soprano), Stephanie Foley Davis (mezzo-soprano), Daniel C. Stein (tenor), David Anderson Weigel (bass-baritone); UNCG Combined Choral Ensembles; UNCG Symphony Orchestra; Dr. Kevin M. Geraldi, conductor [UNCG Auditorium, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 24 February 2017]

The death of Gioachino Rossini on 13 November 1868, was a titanic loss to opera and to the musical institutions of his native Italy. Though his pen had been retired from service to the operatic muse since the completion of Guillaume Tell in 1828, it was Rossini’s music that defined opera in Italy during the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century. From the première of his first professional opera, La cambiale di matrimonio, in 1810 until the first Italian performances of Guglielmo Tell in 1831, the Pesaro-born maestro’s scores dominated the repertories of theatres large and small, his influence extending northward from Venice, Naples, Milan, and Rome to Vienna and Paris, where the composer resided from 1855 until his death. The tenets of bel canto that he refined having been taken up by composers whose names are no longer remembered, been espoused by innovators like Mayr, and paved the way for Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi, it is not surprising that the news of Rossini’s death turned the thoughts of Italy’s musical establishment to commemorating the padre del bel canto in a manner suitable for paying tribute to the legacy of a true pioneer. How else could a man of such enduring importance to an art form and the unique culture of his fatherland be appropriately honored except in the medium of which he was a world-renowned master?

It was Giuseppe Verdi who only four days after Rossini’s death proposed the preparation of a Requiem Mass for performance in Bologna to mark the first anniversary of the sad event. In a letter to the publisher Tito Ricordi, Verdi advocated commissioning components of a Requiem from a number of Italy’s leading composers—some of whom, incidentally, are now recalled by music history almost solely for having been selected to contribute to the Requiem—that could be cobbled together to produce a coherent score for performance in 1869 and, thereafter, permanent consignment to the archives of Pesaro’s Liceo musicale Rossini. Though the thirteen composers to whom portions of the Requiem were assigned submitted their scores by the end of the summer of 1869, the intervention of economics and egos ultimately sank the vessel before its maiden voyage. [The curious reader can become acquainted with the composite Messa per Rossini, rediscovered in 1986, via a generally fine recording on the Hänssler label, conducted by Helmuth Rilling, who led the first known performance of the complete score in 1988 and has since presided over other notable performances of the work.] Its intended use in homage to Rossini thus thwarted, Verdi’s ‘Libera me’ was left as an anchor without a ship until the death of another of Italy’s foremost artists again compelled Verdi to contemplate a Mass of remembrance.

Beyond Italy’s borders, especially among music lovers, the poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni is known principally for his death in 1873 having inspired Verdi’s Messa da Requiem. A leading figure in the Risorgimento movement that resulted in the unification of Italy, Manzoni was the author of I promessi sposi, a widely-respected work that is Italy’s equivalent to Don Quixote, Les miserables, and Moby Dick, as well as the source for a fine but forgotten opera by Amilcare Ponchielli. By the time of Manzoni’s death, Verdi had been acquainted with his work for most of his life, I promessi sposi having been published when the composer was in his early teens, and meeting Manzoni in 1868 intensified Verdi’s respect for the writer as one of the champions of Italian unity. When planning his musical farewell to Manzoni, Verdi’s vision included only his own voice expressing both his personal grief and the national sadness. Adapting his earlier ‘Libera me’ to function as the emotional dénouement of a Requiem reflecting his own individual concepts of death and mourning, Verdi readied his Messa da Requiem for performances in Milan in 1874, observing the first anniversary of Manzoni’s demise with the première in Chiesa di San Marco on 22 May 1874, and repeated at Teatro alla Scala less than a week later. Not least owing to the original soloists’ associations with Aida, it is not without reason that some observers have proclaimed the Messa da Requiem Verdi’s greatest opera. As Manzoni would surely have appreciated, there is no lack of drama in the music. In this epic spiritual drama, man’s soul is the protagonist.

In a broad sense, the Messa da Requiem is also the culmination of Verdi’s career-long internal and external struggles with religious authority. His earliest operas hint at suspicion of the true motivations of religious institutions, particularly in Nabucco, the clashes between Abrahamic and pagan beliefs suggesting an unmistakable element of personal conflict. Later, can it be coincidental that the Conte di Luna, the presumed guardian of Catholic morals in Il trovatore, does not balk at the notion of violating the sanctity of a convent in order to abduct the object of his desire? There can be no misunderstanding the contempt for unchecked religious power personified by the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos and Ramfis in Aida, the operas that occupied Verdi in the years just prior to his composition of the Messa da Requiem. Without joining Brahms in discarding the traditional Requiem, Verdi nonetheless created a compellingly original interpretation of the liturgy, focusing on spiritual trials and triumph rather than divine mercy. Verdi’s is neither a saint’s nor a supplicant’s Requiem. The Messa da Requiem is not a solemn plea for repose for a sinner’s soul: it is the battle with sin itself, a contest between will and temptation waged in music of exhilarating, often exquisite grandeur.

Performing the Messa da Requiem is a tremendous undertaking even for the best-funded and ​most ​impeccably-trained orchestras, choral societies, and opera companies. Frequent traversals by Italian opera houses, recent performances by Houston Grand Opera, and the inclusion of the Messa in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2017 – 2018 Season​ are evidence of the overtly operatic demands of the score. It is a ​testament to both the ambitions and the accomplishments of the School of Music in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s College of Visual and Performing Arts that performing the Messa da Requiem was considered within the department’s capabilities, but the true confirmation of the School of Music’s merits was the monumental, moving performance that the university’s musical personnel achieved. Under the direction of Welborn Young and Carole Ott, UNCG’s combined choral forces—the Chamber Singers, University Chorale, Men’s and Women’s Glee Clubs, and Women’s Choir—proved equal to the grueling demands of Verdi’s music—music that overwhelms some well-schooled professional ensembles. Likewise, the instrumentalists of the UNCG Symphony Orchestra impressed with their unwavering concentration on the notes and nuances of the score. Practicing what he preaches as Associate Professor of Conducting at UNCG, Dr. Kevin M. Geraldi provided the performance with the centralized sense of purpose that successful pacing of this mammoth piece must have. The Messa da Requiem is undeniably operatic, but it is not an opera, and it cannot be conducted like Stiffelio or Aida. Dr. Geraldi’s conducting was focused solely upon the score rather than externalized impressions of it: in his hands, the text was the lead character in the drama. The emotional muscle of Verdi’s operas is derived from the relationships among the people who populate them, but the potent force of the Messa da Requiem emanates from the composer’s musical responses to the words of the Requiem liturgy. Dr. Geraldi obviously understands this, and his animated but cleanly-articulated conducting ensured that both performers and audience shared his comprehension of the score’s singular requirements.

That the standards of excellence exemplified by the chorus and orchestra are not the exclusive property of UNCG’s current student body was affirmed by the quartet of well-qualified, wholly-prepared soloists assembled for the performance, all of them alumni of the university. A prize-winning veteran of Opera Roanoke’s Apprentice Artists program and San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Opera Program, Asheville native bass-baritone David Anderson Weigel brought to Verdi’s Messa da Requiem the same towering presence and vocal solidity that he exhibited in his portrayal of Masetto in North Carolina Opera’s 2015 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Formerly an Opera Carolina Resident Artist, tenor Daniel C. Stein’s singing of Verdi’s music was no less effective than his acclaimed performances as tenor soloist in Händel’s Messiah and Chevalier de la Force in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites with the Winston-Salem Symphony. It was only a few weeks ago that mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis graced the UNCG Auditorium stage as a feisty Mercédès in Greensboro Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen, and her singing in the Messa da Requiem upheld the high caliber of her acclaimed Suzuki in Piedmont Opera’s Madama Butterfly. Her Cio-Cio San in that Winston-Salem recreation of Puccini’s little house overlooking Nagasaki’s harbor was soprano Jill Bowen Gardner, whose gallery of Verdi heroines contains lauded portraits of ladies as diverse as Lady Macbeth and Leonora in Il trovatore. Perhaps most admired in central North Carolina as a Puccini singer, not least in the wake of her triumphant Tosca for Piedmont Opera, Gardner deepened her Verdi credentials with poised, artfully-phrased vocalism in UNCG’s Messa da Requiem. Individually and in ensemble, the soloists’ work displayed an unflappable professionalism that made an extraordinary statement about the qualities that UNCG’s School of Music instills in its graduates. A credit to their alma mater, these four artists sang Verdi’s music more comfortably and effectively than many of the renowned singers whose names recur in the casts of exalted institutions’ and record labels’ performances of the Messa da Requiem.

Dr. Geraldi marshaled the choristers and orchestra with unaffected vigor in a stirring but appropriately-scaled account of the solemnly beautiful andante ‘Requiem æternam dona eis.’ Throughout the performance, the promise of the conductor’s management of the Messa’s opening pages was continually fulfilled, his thoughtful but unflinchingly propulsive tempi and command of an expansive—and obviously well-rehearsed—array of dynamics insightfully limning the music’s shifting light and shade. Plaintively intoning the yearning lines of ‘Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison,’ the soloists introduced themselves with vocalism that complemented the assurance of the choral singing. Their utterances of Verdi’s quietly anguished cries for mercy ringing with absolute sincerity, the mood of contrition was further heightened when Gardner rose to her formidable fortissimo top B.

The most familiar music in the Messa da Requiem is unquestionably the allegro agitato ‘Dies iræ, dies illa solvet sæclum in favilla,’ the anguished strains of which have been appropriated by Hollywood and Madison Avenue for virtually every imaginable cinematic and commercial purpose. The reason for this movement’s popularity beyond the context of the Messa is very simple: it is thrilling, immediately-recognizable music that compels attention even when its unapologetically ferocious depiction of the final judgment is ignored. The choristers’ singing here was astoundingly confident, the sopranos’ intonation especially commendable in the crucial chromatic writing with which Verdi evoked apocalyptic tumult. What in some performances is an embarrassing muddle was in this performance always music, the few mistakes among singers and instrumentalists quickly surmounted. Launched by the basses, ‘Tuba mirum spargens sonum per sepulchra regionum’ exuded an aura of uncertainty that Weigel heightened with his sonorous delivery of ‘Mors stupedit et natura cum resurget creatura.’ Foley Davis voiced ‘Liber scriptus proferetur’ with broad phrasing and intrepid ascents to top F♯ and A♭, answered by the chorus with the organic communication of a celebrant and her congregation. The trio for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and tenor on ‘Quid sum miser tunc dicturus’ was sung by Gardner, Foley Davis, and Stein with textual and emotional clarity, the soprano’s top B like a beacon illuminating the darkest niches of the auditorium.

The soloists and choristers in turn created in the ‘Rex tremendæ majestatis’ an aural panorama of precisely the sort of omnipotent majesty evinced by the text and Verdi’s setting of it. Gardner’s shining, secure top C was not a diva’s ‘money note’ but an extension of the composer’s voice, employed with an apt sense of awe. Carefully navigating the intervals in Verdi’s sinuous writing in the ‘Recordare Jesu pie,’ Gardner and Foley Davis blended their voices sumptuously, maximizing the impact of the harmonic discord of the fusion of the soprano’s B♭5 and the mezzo-soprano’s C4. Stein then voiced the spellbinding ‘Ingemisco tamquam reus’ captivatingly, unleashing a climactic top B♭ worthy of a persuasive Radamès. The contrasting force and suavity with which Weigel subsequently sang ‘Confutatis maledictis’ and the dolce cantabile ‘Voca me cum benedictis’ enhanced appreciation of the sentimental acuity of Verdi’s treatment of the words. The soloists and choir shaped their performance of ‘Lacrymosa dies illa’ with tenderness, Foley Davis giving the passage marked ‘piangente’ a special outpouring of beautiful tone. As the movement progressed to its resolution, further top B♭s were demanded of the soprano soloist, and Gardner delivered with little discernible expenditure of effort.

What the ‘Dies iræ’ claims in widespread familiarity the ‘Offertorio’ matches in expressive substance. Overcoming faltering intonation from the cellos in the opening bars, the solo quartet phrased the pensive ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ with deeply-felt eloquence, infusing their singing of the open vowels with warmth. Entering on a long-held E at the top of the stave, Gardner exquisitely conveyed the time-halting magic of Verdi’s writing. The contrapuntal construction of ‘Quam olim Abrahæ promisti et semini ejus’ was managed with fleet flexibility by singers and conductor, each voice always audible. Beginning the sublime adagio ‘Hostias et preces tibi’ with raptly hushed singing, Stein displayed wonderful breath control and made respectable attempts at the trills that many tenors are all too eager to overlook. The reprise of ‘Quam olim Abrahæ’ brimmed with tested but resilient faith, the dialogue among the voices like the exchange of thematic material among the manuals and pedals of an organ.

The mighty fugue for double chorus that transforms the text of ‘Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, Domine Deus Sabaoth’ into sounds that submerge the listener like a musical avalanche was sung with vigor and potency that were truly remarkable for a student ensemble. The few slips in ensemble were righted without disrupting the pulsing momentum of the music. In this, the choristers were backed with faultless synchronicity by the orchestra. The musicians’ playing also belied their youth, the high strings reliably—and refreshingly—in tune and the brasses and woodwinds conquering very difficult writing with fantastically vibrant results.

Epitomizing the unteachable simplicity that is the essence of the art that conceals art, Gardner’s and Foley Davis’s singing in octaves in the andante dolcissimo ‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi’ provided a masterclass in genuine bel canto. The lesson was not lost on the chorus, their singing perpetuating the atmosphere of reverence instigated by the ladies’ vocalism. Verdi entrusted the first phrases of ‘Lux æterna luceat eis, Domine’ to the mezzo-soprano soloist, and it is difficult to imagine that he could have expected them to be sung more handsomely and incisively than Foley Davis sang them in Greensboro. Following her lead, Stein and Weigel offered their most subtle singing of the evening, joining with the mezzo-soprano in a reading of the music that truly shone with the glow of the eternal light of which they sang.

From a singer’s perspective, Verdi’s writing for the soprano soloist in the moderato, senza misura ‘Libera me, Domine, de morte æterna’ that ends the Messa da Requiem is not unlike Mount Everest. For those capable of reaching its summit, the view from on high is wondrous, but the path to the craggy peak is strewn with the corpses of insufficiently-prepared voices. Supported by Dr. Geraldi’s sustainable tempo and the choristers’ attention to rhythmic and intonational accuracy, Gardner scaled the heights and the depths of the music with equal authority. Restoring tranquility after a reprise of the tempestuous ‘Dies iræ,’ the soprano’s top B♭ in the restatement of ‘Requiem æternam’ floated above the chorus with serene composure. The score’s final fugue was dispatched with zeal. After the ‘lunga pausa’ prescribed by Verdi, the ‘Libera me’ again resounded with fortitude, Gardner’s extended forte top C soaring heavenward. So much angst having been expended in the course of Verdi’s exploration of human mortality and the soul’s transition from life to whatever lurks beyond death, the score’s final bars are marked pppp, almost a murmur of exhaustion in the wake of the final struggle. In UNCG’s performance, these moments of peace were touchingly cathartic.

Had none of his operas endured until the Twenty-First Century, the Messa da Requiem would be sufficient proof of Verdi’s genius. In this phenomenal score, the composer both bade farewell to an artist of seminal importance and confronted personal demons that haunted his music from the beginning of his career. Verdi’s operas are filled with brilliant, difficult music, but the music of the Messa da Requiem possesses unique luminosity and demands. Framed by introspective projections created by the university’s School of Art, UNCG’s performance of the Messa da Requiem evinced that luminosity by meeting those demands with imperturbable musicality. This performance was not a lamentation of death and loss but a celebration of the countless victories of life.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) Soprano JILL BOWEN GARDNER, mezzo-soprano STEPHANIE FOLEY DAVIS, tenor DANIEL C. STEIN, bass-baritone DAVID ANDERSON WEIGEL, and conductor DR. KEVIN M. GERALDI accepting the audience's applause for UNCG School of Music's performance of Giuseppe Verdi's MESSA DA REQUIEM, 24 February 2017 [Photo by the author]Bravi, tutti: (from left to right): Soprano Jill Bowen Gardner, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis, tenor Daniel C. Stein, bass-baritone David Anderson Weigel, and conductor Dr. Kevin M. Geraldi accepting the audience’s applause for UNCG School of Music’s performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, 24 February 2017
[Photo by the author]