Review: Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ by The National Symphony Orchestra

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A nominally ecclesiastical work written by an essentially non-religious man, the Verdi Requiem has come, in the nearly century and a half since its completion, to be beloved by church-goers and concert-goers alike. Written to honor two of Verdi’s recently passed heroes, one musical (composer Gioacchino Rossini) and one national (writer Alessandro Manzoni), the Requiem merges a patriot’s passion with an acolyte’s reverence and adds to the improbable combination—this being Verdi, after all—an operatic sensibility.

The NSO performs Verdi’s Requiem. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.
The NSO performs Verdi’s Requiem. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Thursday night’s performance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, led by Verdi’s compatriot, National Symphony Orchestra Music Director Gianandrea Noseda, paid effective, and at times affecting, tribute to each of these elements. The massive combined chorus, comprising The Washington Chorus and The Choral Arts Society of Washington, under the direction of Christopher Bell and Scott Tucker, respectively, made an impressive entrance with their initial utterance: “Requiem.” Done almost in a spoken, hushed whisper, the emotional impact was heightened by a tension so powerful it could be sensed, as if embedded in the singers themselves and emanating organically from a profound immersion in the word and all that it implied.

A less welcome tension was offered a few measures on: one with tempi, the chorus and the conductor seeming to take turns speeding up, then slowing down, at alternating intervals. But that was a rare lapse, and one that also made the ensuing overwhelming concord of the two ensembles less likely to be taken for granted.

The orchestra and chorus were joined by three celebrated singers from the Washington National Opera—soprano Leah Crocetto, tenor Russell Thomas, and bass-baritone Eric Owens, plus Italian mezzo-soprano Veronica Simeoni—whose concluding solos in the “Kyrie (Kyrie eleison / Lord, have mercy upon us)” were commanding, offering an introduction to the vocal, technical, and emotive mastery they would display in several memorable passages to follow.

Perhaps most memorable of all to aficionados of the Verdi Requiem is not a vocal quartet, or even a solo, but an ear-splitting orchestral and choral explosion: the thunderous “Dies Irae (Day of wrath),” which immediately follows the “Kyrie.” Here players and singers, aligned under Noseda’s driving yet deliberate baton, delivered Verdi’s hammers of doom and destruction with carefully calibrated explosions that were, in each succeeding iteration, seamless and relentless. The strings, brass, percussion, winds, and chorus were all at the top of their game as merciless, expertly tuned screams of anger and agony rained down on listeners, the strings shimmering in intensity.

In the dramatic repetition of the word “Mors” (Death) in the bass solo “Mors stupebit et natura (Death and Nature shall stand amazed),” Owens’ quietly rich, rounded, impeccably articulated tones conveyed the wonder Verdi evokes here not, as in other composers’ works, through ethereal flutes or violins, but with a subtle darkness that can strike a listener as a deeply personal testament.

The “Quid sum miser tunc dicturus? (What can a wretch like me say?)” brought out the best in the four soloists’ blending capacities, highlighted by Crocetto’s sweet, clear, pure soprano. The “salva me, fons pietatis (save me, o font of pity)” of the “Rex tremendis majestatis (King of dreadful majesty)” was a mixed bag, effective overall and ending in a rousing climax, but noticeably lacking, in parts, in cohesion and forward movement.

Thomas’s “Ingemisco tamquam reus (I groan as a guilty one)” solo possessed a nice sheen and confident, bright top notes, Noseda’s beat following the singer carefully, while Owens, in the “Confutatis maledictis (When the damned are silenced),” was once more evocative in the passage’s emotional—here, beseeching—portions.

The “Lachrymosa dies illa (That day is one of weeping)” was notable for Simeoni’s at once gently imploring and mournfully knowing plea and Crocetto’s effortless, bell-like head tones, while the “Pie Jesu Domine” offered another deeply satisfying fusion of the four voices. So, too, did the “Offertorio,” whose soprano-mezzo duet offered a splendid purity of tone supported by a macro-level (i.e., musical and metaphysical) harmony of the entire ensemble, the section ending with an exquisitely delicate and controlled, micro-level (in size and volume) vibrato by the strings.

The NSO performs Verdi’s Requiem. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.
The NSO performs Verdi’s Requiem. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The “Agnus Dei (Lamb of God)” offered further demonstration of Crocetto and Simeoni’s musical and tonal synchronicity. Though the chorus disappointed somewhat here, lacking a corresponding lift and resonance to complement those so evident in the soloists, the orchestra played well and closed the section with precision and delicacy, Noseda’s expansive gestures both guiding and responding to the players with a similar synchronicity, phrase by phrase, beat by beat. The “Lux Aeterna (Eternal light)” that followed was most striking in the mellow richness of Owens’s “Requiem aeternam.”

“Libera Me (Deliver me),” not just the last, but the longest of the sections, is an invigorating recapitulation as well as expansion of the preceding musical and liturgical themes. It also gave the performers a chance to show their chops in yet another proficiency: the ability to switch rapidly from mood to mood and style to style, missing barely—literally or figuratively—a beat. If Crocetto’s final high B flat, “Requi-em,” whose dynamic could be as terrifying for a singer as the “Dies Irae” can be for a listener, was not held for as long as one may be used to hearing, that Noseda and the orchestra matched its brevity suggests either that it was planned, or that the ever observant and molto simpatico conductor sensed that the soprano, fresh from a critically acclaimed and demanding run as Elisabetta in the Washington National Opera’s (and Verdi’s) Don Carlo, needed—and more than deserved—the break.

The audience certainly got one, which it made clear the split second after the extended, final dying note (marked, in fact, “morendo”) of the piece ended its almost imperceptible—and, for those eager to show their appreciation, well-nigh interminable—sound. While there are usually a few attendees in a concert audience who will slowly rise, person by person, in enthusiastic appreciation of a performance, it is not at all common, to the point of being positively uncommon, for nearly an entire, hall-filling, four-story audience of more than 1,000 to spring to their feet, interspersed with hearty roars of approval, and remain there, curtain call after curtain call. But that is what happened Thursday night.

There are two more chances to be part of this experience. No matter what your theological persuasion, as a YouTube commenter ruefully and perceptively observed with regard to one of the standout recordings of the work: “For at least an hour and 24 minutes, you can believe in God.”

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Requiem plays through March 24, 2018, at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC 20566. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.