Everyone loves a Requiem. That might seem a strange, maybe even tasteless thing to say about a Mass for the Dead. But the text, with its descriptions of the Day of Judgment, trumpets blaring and the earth a-sundering, its pleas for forgiveness and salvation, and the ultimate expressions of heavenly redemption, has proven irresistible to composers. A prime example is Berlioz, who called for a cast of thousands in his Requiem, including no fewer than four brass orchestras stationed at each compass point in the church to frighten his Paris listeners right back into confessional. Verdi also could not resist the dramatic possibilities of the requiem—he was an opera composer, after all—and wrote a Requiem for the ages.
The world of opera is not far from this sacred work. Verdi in fact, actually used some music from one of his operas (the duet “Qui me rendra ce mort? Ô funèbres abîmes!” from Act IV of Don Carlos) for the “Lacrymosa” that concludes the Sequence of the Requiem. Aida, which Verdi had composed just three years before the Requiem, is an even more palpable presence, and it was probably no accident that he chose the four soloists who had all sung the European premiere of Aida in 1872—Teresa Stolz, Maria Waldmann, Giuseppe Coppini (who had to be replaced because of illness), and Ormando Maini—for the premiere of the Requiem in Milan on May 22, 1874.
I would like to think that Verdi would have been equally pleased by the wonderful performance of this “opera in ecclesiastical robes,” as the 19th-century conductor Hans von Bülow once described the Requiem, which was presented by the Masterwork Chorale at Sanders Theater this past Sunday, March 14. Conductor Steven Karidoyanes clearly knows this piece, and loves it, and he led the considerable forces at his disposal with an impressive technique and a fine sense of dramatic pacing. The chorus sang magnificently for him, with a full and rich sound, solid intonation, power when needed (such as in the opening of the Sanctus) and excellent ensemble, despite the fact that they were spread out over the entire width of the stage. The vocal soloists- Eleni Calenos (soprano), Joanna Porackova (mezzo-soprano), Jason McStoots (tenor), and Tom O’Toole (bass/baritone) were also fine, but kudos must go to the ladies: Calenos, who boasts of a gorgeous soprano voice and great control that made Verdi’s melodies soar into the heavens, would be welcome on any operatic stage; and Porackova, who used her impressive instrument to full dramatic effect.
The other “soloist” in this or any work by Verdi is the orchestra, and they deserve special praise. The string section, although small in numbers, produced a sound that would have been the envy of an orchestra twice its size, and played with superb ensemble and intonation. The wind sections performed on the same level, including some virtuoso solos by flutist Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin, clarinetist Diane Heffner and bassoon principal Janet Underhill. And don’t forget the percussion. Verdi never did, and no work of his can ever be successful without some excellent timpani and bass drum playing. John Grimes and Patrick Litterst delivered the goods—with a bang.