Thursday, 12th September 2013 at the Palace Hall
G. Verdi – Requiem
Antonio Pappano (conductor), Liudmila Monastyrska (s), Ecaterina Semenciuk (ms), Saimir Pirgu (t), René Pape (b), Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
I still cannot believe it. Several hours have passed since Antonio Pappano’s second concert ended and I still hear the reverberations of Verdi’s music, which still moves me. Even though I had waited for this Requiem almost with a kind of nervousness, in all this sonorous whirl of the Festival, it seems I was not aware the recital could reach this level. I had high expectations, I was trying to guess how it would be, but what I saw and heard exceeded my power of imagination.
Until now, in Bucharest, we have never had an opera staging with the same artistic dimension as a premiere in Teatro alla Scala, Covent Garden or The Metropolitan, let aside Wiener Staatsoper. And I am talking here about the entire team which is singing, not only about the soloists, but also the orchestra and the choir and (especially) the conductor. The Requiem is not an opera, despite the long debates about the theatrical character of Verdi’s sacred masterpiece. At the same time, Verdi’s Requiem is almost an antithesis of Mozart’s Requiem seen from the perspective of musical expression of faith. But Giuseppe Verdi is not the name of a composer, it is the name of a religion. A religion of the Opera. His melodramas are analysed and interpreted by several conductors, since Arturo Toscanini, with religious fervour. Watch Riccardo Muti spellcasting Don Carlo. Or Claudio Abbado celebrating Simon Boccanegra. James Levine officiating in Rigoletto. And so many others praying in Messa da Requiem…
Today, within reach, at a distance that means almost no logistical effort, but only a very small financial one, we had the occasion to applaud a dream team, of about one hundred musicians. Orchestra Nazionale dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia – one of the most brilliant orchestras in Italy, with a tradition that does not have equivalent not only in Romania, but all around Europe, with an excellent specialization in symphonic music. The choir of the same Accademia di Santa Cecilia. The two ensembles glow not only due to the symphonic concerts, but also due to the memory of our loves for Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco, with whom they recorded so many discs that entered the fundamental legend of the home opera, that opera where, so often, we remained alone, our divas and us, in an otherwise impossible intimacy… And then Antonio Pappano, probably the most splendid opera conductor in the world. Liudmila Monastyrska – the revelation of the latest years at The Metropolitan (what a great Aida!) and in London (when nobody thought another great Abigail was possible). Ecaterina Semenciuk – her Eboli just impressed a lot of people in Salzburg, only one month ago. Saimir Pirgu – the new prince of the Mozart tenors, an unexpected sun rising from Albany. And René Pape himself, the great bass of the lyrical planet, getting with his art so much music from Mussorgsky to Mozart and Wagner. Only the poster of the concert was the mean and limitative representation of a music lover’s dream. Therefore, I am taking the precaution to mention that any critical observation must be considered in this context: a team of extraterrestrials who came, who knows how (or maybe only Ioan Hollender knows), to Bucharest.
To Bucharest! A city crazy about opera, as strange as this affirmation may seem. By the pride that we have when we look at our opera singers of old times who, whether they conquered the world or not, are always remembered, in any context. Or by the ingratitude shown to others, who really meant something in this supreme art. But, most of all, by the crowd of people in the audience, in the Palace Hall, today, getting to their seats long before the orchestra stepped on stage, and waiting for the musical event of the year in a silence full of tension. Hollender, with his immense experience, exaggerated a lot in the press conference two weeks ago when he said that this Requiem made the organizers of the Salzburg Festival jealous. We saw the effect of this statement today, in the crowd that seemed to want to confirm his appreciations. This is how I entered the Palace Hall, among the last ones, in this madness.
Madness, but, most of all, also an experience. Which started with the first sounds of the Introit, barely perceptible, with that incredibly slowly growing crescendo, that introduces you in the atmosphere of the funeral missae not by seduction, but through an implacable attraction, instantly connecting you to the sobriety of the Requiem’s significance. Which is that of a funeral service, and for Verdi, by the musical allusions to so many of his operas, it is a funeral service for his characters, whom he loved so much that he killed them on stage, in front of us, thousands and thousands of times, and he made us cry at their tragedies, shuddering at our own weaknesses, that they had revealed. But Pappano went beyond that, nobody else but him, the epitome of the lyrical theatre, and he showed us a rigorousness and such a profound knowledge about this music that, as I said before, Verdi himself became a religion.
Kyrie then exploded and, in that sound, pretty solemn and a little dry, of the Accademiei Nazionale (but this is how Italian orchestras are, they do not overdo the opulence of the sound), one by one, the soloists declaimed, in Greek, the well-known formula: Lord, have mercy!… Christ, have mercy! Monastyrska intoned at the physical limit of her instrument, with an ample and exaggerated vibrato, which disappeared quite rapidly, as soon as her voice warmed up. Dies Irae had the usual violence, not chaotically unleashed, but controlled with an iron hand, because humans are not allowed to describe, by exaggerations, the unknown of the Judgement Day. Tuba mirum, the terrible trumpet of the Apocalipse, that we have not heard yet and, when we hear it, we will not survive to describe it, this Tuba mirum so many times played with infernal strength, last night was as expressive as ever by the control of the brass volume, that let us perceive all the details of the beauty in the music of the two trumpets that accompany the trombone. Mors stupebit was the first moment when René Pape showed why he is so famous: for his intelligence, but also for his intuition. I have never heard his whispers like today, the most silent whispers of all possible, but which could be heard from all the corners of the immense Palace Hall, like scrutinizing the existential abyss. But the performance had a fifth soloist: the choir. The diction was exemplary, we cannot compare it to anything from Romania, we praise our choirs because we do not know precisely what an exemplary romantic choir sounds like, and especially in sacred music. Such a choir means relief, expressiveness, discipline and, most of all, a complete comprehension of the significance of every word, which must be stressed only to a certain limit in order to show the beauty of the composition. Concentrated and fascinated, I watched all this compact mass of souls sending prayers to Heaven and asking for their salvation, in the parts that followed. The chorus in Sanctus! Where we often hear a forced happiness, with allusions to the baroque laic music – here, everything was put under the sign of sobriety, reserve, balance, in a clear delimitation of the human limits.
Quid sum miser… What shall I, frail man, be pleading? was a moment when the voices of the quartet reunited in that melancholy of the piety in all its splendour, for the first time at the maximum of their expressivity. And the Requiem showed, at that moment, exactly what it is: an experience more than an audition, a complex experience that transcends the sound, beyond the simple beauty of the music, by words full of significations, hanging heavily on the audience’s souls. I am not a bigot when I stress the importance of the words. Christian religion is not only dogma, but also a lot of philosophy.
Recordare was the moment when Ecaterina Semenciuk’s low and very equal timber caused a stir. I was waiting for Ingemisco a little frightened, as I thought that Saimir Pirgu, even though very good, is a light tenor, probably ideal for Mozart’s Requiem, but the tenor that Verdi requires needs more weight. The end, … statuens in parte dextra, did not exceed in volume, but the two lines in the libretto, Qui Mariam absolvisti,/ et latronem exaudisti, that are so genially exposed by the music, were so beautifully sung by Pirgu that this simply overwhelmed me and plunged me in a state of emotion that did not leave me the entire night. Pirgu compensated his dramatic limits by colour and by his own emotion, that he transmitted to us. And everything continued like this, with Pape bursting with nuances of amazing beauty, how can one not be ecstatic after hearing him entering in Hostias? Semenciuk carried the burden of a score that leans heavily on the mezzo’s voice, with dignity and a lot of discipline. Up to Libera me, when Monastyrska ended the concert with a voice at the same time big and willing to integrate with the choir in a balance I had never met. Libera me, where Verdi serenely makes peace with the end, but where he is also scared that his soul could be condemned forever.
Everything ended in the quietness that progressively settles in at the finale and that charges the atmosphere, beyond any impulse of producing an explosion. You don’t feel like jumping up and applauding frantically, at first you must pull yourself together. The explosion is delayed, it appears only when the conductor and the soloists have left the stage for the first time. The nervous relief is immense and slow, as a decantation.
It was raining. And it seemed nobody was in a hurry to leave, they were all talking in the foyer about the experience of a night at a concert, an experience – you have just realised – that you will not meet again soon. I left with the feeling that the music was weighing over me. But I left relieved of any other weights.
Overwhelming? No. Only life is overwhelming. Music is only elevation.