The Mass as opera, but who cares?

VERDI’S REQUIEM

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Hamer Hall

Saturday April 13

Okka

                                                             Okka von der Damerau  

My father, like many other Catholics of his generation, never warmed to Verdi’s Requiem Mass; he persisted in the unoriginal assertion that it smacked too much of the theatre and distracted from the purpose of a  true requiem.  But then, he wasn’t much taken by Gounod’s amiable St. Cecilia Mass when out local Pymble choir used to present it back in the late 1950s.   Faure was more his measure, even if that benign musical oasis fell outside the strictures of the 1903 motu proprio from Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini.  Sadly, I was never able to call the Berlioz Requiem to his attention: I didn’t know it in those years and, in any case. who wants to give scandal to musical innocents?

Sixty years on, the appraisal decrying Verdi’s secularization of the Requiem form is close to irrelevant when you consider contemporary practice in the Church’s music, let alone the outright vulgarities committed during services held by younger Christian sects.  Getting into any discussion about this topic has become increasingly futile in an era when church musicians have to cut their choral cloth to suit their congregations’ intellectual width.   As the unarguable directive goes, He that has ears to hear, let him hear.  If that means you feel constrained to take on the Verdi work as simply a historical anomaly, so be it.

Saturday’s performance from the MSO Orchestra and Chorus proved to be more than acceptable, conductor Lawrence Renes overseeing a generously ample version of the work in which nobody rushed unduly, the soloists generally kept to the prevailing metre, and the sonorously lavish moments were given full measure.   Each of the four solo voices showed positive qualities, although I was most taken by alto Okka von der Damerau, right from a formidable Kyrie entry, through an initially quavering Liber scriptus that settled into artfully spun phrases, up to a moving, transparent introduction to the Lux aeterna movement. To be sure, this singer proved well aware of her line’s potential for emotional heft, as in her decreasing dynamic intensity on the repeats of the word ‘nul’ at the end of her Sequence solo.

To her credit, soprano Leah Crocetto showed a dynamic sympathy with Damerau during the Recordare and Agnus Dei duets although she took many another opportunity to dominate the ruck when all four solo singers were involved.   At the start, her hefty vibrato surprised during slow-paced passages, although any initial dissatisfaction had worn off by the conclusion of the Recordare pages that impressed as one of the performance’s highlights, thanks to the female soloists’ empathy and avoidance of sentimentality.    Crocetto underplayed the monotonic drama of the Libera me opening recitative, a moment that a singer of Vishnevskaya’s calibre could make spine-tingling with passion and scarcely bridled fear.  But you could not fault the tension of Crocetto’s Tremens factus sum ego solo: a passage where those long-time accusations of theatricality garnered heavy support.

Tenor Issachach Savage invested the opening to the Kyrie with panache and a clarity of production that he maintained until the end, although it seemed to me that he was labouring under some physical difficulty towards the work’s conclusion.  Still, his most exposed solos, the Ingemisco and Hostias, came across with clear definition and a rousing, powerful upper register if the final ascending scale of the former sounded slightly abridged after the top B flat.   Bass soloist Nicholas Brownlee made stately rather than histrionic work of the Mors stupebit verses but impressed more when he came to the Confutatis maledictis section – a fine demonstration of musical and textural clarity.

Carrying out their work to maximum effect, the MSO Chorus kept up with Renes’ tempi and showed very creditably in nearly all the a cappella segments from a stalwart Te decet to the final movement’s Requiem aeternam support of the soprano soloist; certainly more assured than the preceding section’s Cum sanctis tuis trio from three soloists.   As well as relishing the explosive Dies irae outbursts with which Verdi gratuitously peppers the Mass process, the Chorus did their best in the Tuba mirum explosion; as usual, you could see the physical motion but the voices were drowned.  Matters might have been improved if the large body of sopranos on the side gallery had been slanted to face the audience rather than singing into the orchestral space.   But the male singers gave good value to the enterprise, the basses tending to extra prominence in the opening pages but the tenors present and secure in the choral texture.

Very little miscarried in the instrumental forces, the exercise carried along by a clear expertise from both wind and strings.   For the first time in my memory, the gallery trumpets melded in with the ground-level action, to the point where the communal fabric sounded as it should: a heightening of the texture, rather than a superimposition from discrete groups.  In fact, the brass choirs acquitted themselves with distinction: no lagging behind the pulse, a laudable balance in output, general precision in exposed chords. In the Dies irae strophes, the bass drum sounded over-hefty but the player was just responding to Verdi’s request for a delivery that is ‘dry’ and very loud.  In fact, the whole ensemble gave a confident reaction to Renes’ direction, even compensating during its less assured phases.

A satisfying and cogent reading, then, of this score that, despite what you think of its ecclesiastical suitability, is packed with melodic riches.  And that, I suppose, is the end point of all the fuss.   The message is overdrawn, the chances for musical pictorialization all too readily seized, the canvas very lavish emotionally, if not as coloured as some others.   Yet it has an emphatic certainty of utterance that carries you along each time you hear it.   You can regret, like my father, the work’s disruptive surface, one that does not really allow for contemplation, and the flights of virtuoso singing that it holds, surging glories that bring your attention to the performers’ craft.   But what else would you expect from the 19th century’s second-greatest opera composer?   Of course, there are oddities, like the choir’s fugal treatment of the Libera me text, yet the work as a whole is invested with an enthralling mixture of high tension and taut consolation, solidly delivered on this night.