Verdi’s Requiem in Santa Fe

In celebration of its twenty-fifth anniversary the first week of May, the
Santa Fe Symphony encountered unexpected drama in an attempt —
ultimately successful — to present a festive performance of the Verdi

First, soprano Kallen Esperian, after several days of rehearsal, came down
with laryngitis and canceled Friday noon, with scheduled performances
Saturday and Sunday.

Gregory W. Heltman, SFSO’s energetic founding director and manager,
contacted General Director Charles MacKay at the Santa Fe Opera to see if his
resources included a Verdi soprano on 24-hours’ notice. It so happened
MacKay could help. He knew Christine Brewer, a veteran of many a Verdi
Requiem, was at her home in suburban St. Louis recovering from a bad
knee that kept her out of the Metropolitan Opera’s current Wagner’s
Ring cycle. A quick telephone call, a fast favorable decision and
the problem was solved. Almost.

Brewer’s plane from St. Louis Saturday morning was due at
Albuquerque’s Sunport at 1:20 p.m., presumably allowing time enough to
make the 60-mile drive to Santa Fe, check in the Eldorado Hotel, walk across
the street to the Lensic Performing Arts Center for a few minutes of
rehearsal before dressing for the 6 p.m. concert. But the plane, a victim of
weather delays, did not put Brewer on the ground until 4:40, into the
awaiting arms of the frantic symphony managers.

After a fast hour’s drive through the rain directly to the stage
door of the Lensic in downtown Santa Fe, an intensely focused Brewer headed
straight to her dressing room, unpacked her gown, accepted help with make-up,
drank a liter of cool water, and was led on stage by conductor Stephen Smith,
along with the three other soloists, at 6:40 pm. The audience was ready
— they had been kept in place by a lecture and an award made to a
venerable music educator.

Brewer looked composed and calm in a black silk gown with a colorful
over-cape, and stood next to contralto Kathleen Clawson as if it were
business-as-usual, which is about how it turned out, plus a little more. In
January Brewer had sung, and recorded, Verdi’s great operatic requiem
in England with Sir Colin Davis, and a month later repeated it with the St.
Louis Symphony. She had it down cold, and her duets with Clawson were as
well-honed as if she had been rehearsing all week. (“We listened to
each other,” Clawson later said.) All the soloists’ ensemble work
went beautifully, and the “Recordare” was radiant as the two women’s
voices blended with rare elegance. Brewer’s fine-spun high tones, one
of her great gifts, playing against Clawson’s mature, dark contralto
provided an Aida moment, which is perhaps just what Verdi had in mind. Brewer
was up to the dramatic requirements of the “Lachrymosa”, and triumphed in the
“Libera me” with dramatic parlando outbursts, stunning fortes and ultimately a
return to her trademark high pianissimi in the finale.

The last time SFSO essayed the Verdi Requiem was five years ago,
the season of its twentieth anniversary, and at that time mezzo-soprano
Clawson stood out as the predominant soloist. This year Brewer earned the
honors, both for her last-minute effort to save the show, and her supremely
refined and confident singing of the challenging soprano lines — pure
opera, in effect, by the 19th C. Italian master of dramatic music theatre.
Few sopranos I know combine Brewer’s strengths at present —
exactly the qualities needed to make memorable this nameless operatic
heroine. One has only to experience the “Libera me” as presented by a great
dramatic singer to appreciate the generous measure of Brewer’s talent.
This was Leonora or Amelia or Aida at her highest emotional pitch.
Brewer’s unusually large physical size and a long-held preference for
platform singing, will likely continue to keep her from performing staged
Italian operatic repertory. Yet, her “Recordare” duet with the mellow Clawson
left one yearning to hear these voices in Aida — a frequent
point of reference for those who enjoy the Requiem.

Clawson showed a warm rather dark mezzo; if it did not project fully in
the lowest register, her tone was plentiful and easy in the middle range and
top. She was a worthy proponent of Verdi and partner to Brewer. The male side
was a bit less impressive: Robert BrÈault, whom I hear as a Britten-Vaughan
Williams tenor, was a thorough professional even if his tonal qualities were
not of Verdian stripe, and in the bass part Kevin Maynor was similarly
earnest if lacking in thunder. Linda Rainey, who is ‘Ms. Choral
Director’ of Northern New Mexico, had assembled various forces, the
Santa Fe Men’s Camerata, Ken Knight, conductor, and her Santa Fe
Women’s Ensemble, which along with the Symphony’s volunteer
chorus comprised a group of a hundred singers that was well rehearsed by
Rainey and responsive, if not of especially distinguished tonal quality.

Steven Smith, for a decade music director and conductor of SFSO, presented
a good standard performance of the Verdi score. Smith has a solid background
with the Eastman School and Cleveland Orchestra, and still combines duties in
Cleveland with his symphonic concerts each season at Santa Fe, as well as
musical direction at the Brevard Festival. We are not talking about a
Toscanini fire-and-brimstone Verdi Requiem, rather an affecting and touching
reading of the score, well beyond what one might expect to find in a small
mountain city in the lower Rockies.

Santa Fe continues to surprise.

J. A. Van Sant © 2009

image_description=Christine Brewer [Photo by Christian Steiner courtesy of IMG Artists]
product_title=G. Verdi: Requiem
product_by=Christine Brewer; Kathleen Clawson; Robert Breault; Kevin Maynor. Santa Fe Men’s Camerata. Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble. Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Steven Smith, conductor.
product_id=Above: Christine Brewer [Photo by Christian Steiner courtesy of IMG Artists]