Friday, June 6, 2014
Flames, trembling souls, and angelic wings soar in Portland Symphonic Choir’s Verdi Requiem
The flames of Dante’s Inferno, trembling souls, and the hovering wings of an angelic presence swirled about the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Sunday evening, June 1, during a concert of Verdi’s “Requiem” (“Messa da Requiem”). Presented by the Portland Symphonic Choir, the powerful and engaging performance involved over 140 voices, including four soloists. Conducted masterfully by Steven Zopfi, the singers and orchestra scoured the heights and depths of this massive work, which is well-loved for its dramatic and operatic flair, and the result was an emotionally and satisfying experience.
The “Messa da Requiem” was written by Verdi in response to the deaths of two great compatriots that he admired. The first was Rossini, who died in Paris in November of 1868. Even though he was an agnostic and fiercely anti-clerical, Verdi proposed a “Requiem Mass” to be composed by Italy’s foremost composers, with one movement to be written by each. Verdi wrote the “Libera me” for that collaborative work, but it was not performed because of disagreements over money and personnel. In May of 1873, the novelist Alessandro Manzoni passed away, and that was keenly felt by Verdi, who considered Manzoni to one of Italy’s greatest writers. Within a year’s time, Verdi wrote the “Messa da Requiem,” incorporating the “Libera me,” and it received its premiere in Milan at the Church of San Marco in 1874 with Verdi on the podium. The work, which is known as Verdi’s “Requiem” has remained in the repertoire ever since.
The soloists, consisting of soprano Kelley Nassief, mezzo Kathryn Weld, tenor Jason Slayden, and bass-baritone Matthew Scollin made a formidable presence. Nassief sang majestically, and kept her vocal prowess in check most of the way, blending well with the other soloists. She definitely got the got the last word in the “Libera me” section. Her voice soared and her emotion was heartfelt and genuine. With the choir and orchestra, she left it all on the stage floor, pleading as an individual for mercy.
Weld did her best work in the upper register, but her lower register needed some extra heft to bring out the full force of her solos and also to be heard against the sound of her colleagues. Slayden supplied a heroic tenor that was remarkably expressive and supported with terrific stamina. His “Ingemisco teamquam reus” (“I groan as a guilty one”) beautifully forged power with lyricism. Scollin poured as much gravitas as possible into his solos, and his singing of “Confutatis maledictis” (“When the damnned are silenced”) wonderfully changed from a subterranean force to a tremulous plea.
The explosiveness of the choir was sudden and thrilling, especially with the “Dies irae” (“Day of wrath”) and “Rex tremendae majestatis” (“King of dreadful majesty”), and "Sanctus" ("Holy") passages in which the volume level got turned up a couple of hair-raising notches. Yet the sound was always well-defined rather than a blare. The choir also excelled in the opposite direction when hushed or solemn moods were demanded. On top of that, the diction of the choir was so superb that you didn’t need to read the text in the program. Consonants were distinct and added meaning to every phrase. Finally, the intonation of the choir was first rate. This was evident right away, when the singers flawlessly executed an extended a cappella section at the beginning of the piece. If they had sagged in the tone, it would have ruined the overall effect when the orchestra joined them.
The orchestra consisted of members of the Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, and some of the best local freelancers. The played impressively with great attention to detail, including many tender moments (woodwinds and strings) that accompanied the singers with eloquence. Even the trumpet battery in the balcony was spot on – a fairly difficult feat because of the distance between the balcony and the stage.
Despite all of the extremes in this work, Zophi didn’t over emote. There were no huge gestures and no playing to the crowd. The exactness of the response that he received from the singers and instrumentalists was astonishing. Crescendos and decrescendos were exhilarating. The piccolo and high brass could be heard above the tremendous rush of sound during the “Dies irae,” and that heightened the overall effect of the words.
Sung without intermission, Verdi's "Requiem" could have had a laden-like effect if not done with the passion and drama that came across in this performance. The audience soaked it all in and then responded with thunderous applause and cheers.