The first time Andris Nelsons planned to lead the Verdi Requiem with the BSO, he had to cancel after suffering an injury in Europe. On Saturday night he finally got the opportunity to direct his orchestra in Verdi’s powerfully dramatic setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, which the non-religious Verdi composed in memory of his personal hero, the great novelist Alessandro Manzoni.
Some wags have called the Requiem, “Verdi’s greatest opera,” (opera being considered inappropriate for an ostensibly religious work). But it’s interesting to recall that virtually every Verdi non-comic opera has a plot that hinges on premonitions of, or the occurrence of, death. Naturally, the approaches he developed over 30 years of composing served him well when dealing with that ultimate fate in a concert work.
The opera ranges between extremes of volume, from the all-but-unheard opening orchestral gesture for hushed strings (soon echoed by a hushed chorus) to the earth-shattering blows representing the arrival of the Day of Judgment. Andris Nelsons gave these extremes, and every level between—full value.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by James Burton, appeared for the first time this summer. They sat unusually hashed between alto and soprano voices, and hashed between tenor and bass voices with all the men in the two back rows and all the women in the front. The chorus adapted, with the orchestra, through Verdi’s insistent and demanding dynamic ranges, from ultra-piano to ultra-forte. The one spot that seemed momentarily to get away from them was the rapid entries of the fugue in the Sanctus, but otherwise they projected brilliantly.
The four vocal soloists all boasted enough vocal power to make themselves heard in the Koussevitzky Music Shed in front of the orchestra and chorus.
Verdi composed the Requiem three years after what he was certain, at the time, would be his last opera, Aida, and he wrote the soprano and alto parts for the same women who had sung the roles of Aida and Amneris. There are several places in the Requiem where soprano Kristine Opolais and mezzo Oksana Volkova, abetted by Verdi’s melodies and harmonies, sounded very much like the two characters from the opera. Though their voices are not notably similar in sound, the passage in which they duetted in octaves blended perfectly. Tenor Jonathan Tetelman, Chilean-born, but residing in American and educated here, boasts a ringing tenor that one thinks of as an Italian sound, but he also could float a radiant pianissimo. The bass-baritone, Ryan Speedo Green, projects a powerful, dark tone that effectively “stuns” Death (Mors stupebit) into silence during a section of the Dies irae and adds a firm underpinning to the solo quartet or the trio of alto, tenor, and bass.
The power of Verdi’s Requiem comes from the humanity of his melodies, making the emotional meaning of the words exceptionally clear. The variety during the verses of the Dies irae (the longest section of the Requiem text) makes the stanzas move from terror, to urgent prayer, to description of horrendous events described in the medieval poem, to a sweet, poignant expression of the sadness of the last day (Verdi saved this Lacrimosa, passage for reuse after it he cutting it from Don Carlos owing to its lengthy running time. Though most of the movement serves for varied expression, the beginning and end balance one another, concluding the Requiem as it began, at the threshold of audibility.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.