Verdi’s Requiem at the ROH

Indeed, Verdi was a vociferous participant in the conflict between Church
and State, and, at this stage of his life, was probably agnostic. The death
of Alessandro Manzoni – the poet and novelist whom the composer venerated,
and whose I promessi sposi (1827), a patriotic text which was a
forerunner in the development of a unified Italian language, is customarily
considered to be a symbol of the Italian risorgimento – prompted Verdi to
return to and revise the ‘Libera me’ that he had composed for the planned
Rossini commemoration. A letter which the composer penned to Clara Maffei
on day of Manzoni’s funeral, declared: ‘Now it is all ended! And with him
ends the purest, the most holy, the highest of our glories!’ David Rosen
(in the Cambridge Music Handbook to the Requiem) remarks Verdi’s mixture of
nostalgia and pessimism, and suggests that ‘in bidding farewell to Manzoni,
Verdi was also writing a “Requiem for the Risorgimento” and marking a
passing of a whole generation and a whole tradition’.

This performance at the Royal Opera House of Verdi’s Requiem fulfilled
several functions, and these were also not without political inference and
context. As conductor Antonio Pappano explained in his opening address, the
performance celebrated the awarding of the Royal Charter fifty years ago to
what was then known as the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden; and, as Armistice
day approaches, it commemorated the end of WWI and remembered those who
died in that conflict. Pappano also urged us to remember the recent passing
of the soprano, Montserrat CaballÈ.

This performance was not a religious ritual though, but, it was one of
emotive, spiritual, as well as dramatic, impact and import. The ROH stage
was crowded, the House’s Orchestra raised from the pit and the Chorus
assembled behind – and, perhaps, pushed a little too far from the four
soloists arrayed at the front of the stage. Not all of the choral text was
communicated clearly and directly, and the Chorus members took a little
while to get into their stride: the basses’ opening ‘Te decet hymnus’ was a
little cloudy – just as, later, the closing fugue was a little flabby. But,
the ROH Chorus made their mark when it counted. A fortissimo ‘Rex
tremendae majestatis’ from the basses was countered by a wonderfully graded
quiet response from the divided tenors. The double choir opening of the
Sanctus also seemed rather woolly, perhaps because the singers were set so
far back on the stage, but the ladies were light and precise in the
subsequent counterpoint, carried aloft by springy string pizzicatos and
deliciously light staccato motoring quavers which later swelled into
roaring chromatic arcs.

Pappano conjured both operatic intensity and contemplative intimacy;
notably, this was a spaciousness interpretation which offered time for apt
reflection, though I didn’t feel that Pappano fully sustained the dramatic
tension throughout the 90 minutes: the Lacrymosa seemed ponderous, the
entry of the choir and percussion here, rather weighty. But, there was much
orchestral and soli playing to admire. The muted celli sighed,
barely a whisper, at the start, intimating terror, expectation and drama.
The first ‘Requiem aeternam’ strove to obey Verdi’s instruction – il pi˘ piano possible: there was a sense of restrained
weeping, a reverential hush.

The wrath of the Dies Irae was a terrifying energy: one admired the
accuracy of the strings’ tumbling somersaults, the thunderous
portentousness of timpani and bass drum, the punches from the horns and
brass that hit with a full, fat fist, as well as the lovely solos
subsequently from the clarinet and bassoon. The tricky opening of the
Offertorio, for celli and woodwind, combined rhetoric and intimacy.

At the front of the stage the spotlight shone on the four young soloists,
most especially on Lise Davidsen – in between ROH Ring cycles – who was
deputising for the indisposed Krassimira Stoyanova. But, whatever the
soloists individual merits, there was a real sense of the quartet working
and communicating together, collectively. The trio ‘Quaerans me, sedisti
lassus’ in the Dies Irae was full of penitence and relief – ‘You have saved
me, by enduring the cross’ – and the quartet, ‘Hostias et preces tibi’ at
the close of the Offertorio had the delicacy of a madrigal with respect to
the placement of the parlando text.

And, so, to Davidsen’s performance. One of my colleagues commented on her
participation in the Requiem at this summer’s


, admiring the ‘accuracy of her singing, the brilliance of her upper
register and the ability to scale her dynamics’, and judged her ‘Libera me’
to be ‘a tour de force: exquisite strength, imperious high notes and a
pianissimo that was ravishing. This is a voice that doesn’t just cut
through the orchestra like a sabre; it rises effortlessly above it as
well.’ – sentiments with which I concur absolutely after this performance.
There is such astonishing power and steel, on show and seemingly in
reserve, that it takes one’s breath away. Thus, one marvels that Davidsen
can float such effortless arcs of gleaming sound: her entry in the Kyrie
seemed to lift the music from its roots – Pappano’s tempo was definitely on
the un poco side of animando – like a magnet, brightening
and elevating the ensemble sound. She used vibrato judiciously and varied
the tone expressively: there was a lovely sincerity at the start of the
Recordare, above the cello’s easy lilt, and a well-judged warming of the
tone as the phrases broadened. In the Libera me one could palpably feel the
heat of the flame as she flung ‘Dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem’
(When You come to judge the world by fire) into the firmament; she was
complemented by some splendid bassoon playing here, though the strings
could have been even more fragile. The expansive breadth of Davidsen’s
phrasing made the explosive interruption of the Dies irae reprise all the
more theatrical; the return of ‘Requiem aeternam’ pierced like a moonbeam
through the soft darkness of the low-pitched chorus – perpetual light might
indeed shine on them and us. Verdi asks for a pppp dynamic for the
high Bb, rather optimistically perhaps, but I did wonder about the
appropriateness of Davidsen’s crescendo through the sustained summit.

American mezzo Jamie Barton was Davidsen’s equal with regard to sonic
impact, and perhaps surpassed her in expressive nuance. Her entry in the
Dies irae, ‘Liber scriptus proferetur’, was crystalline, and when repeated
subsequently, stirring and powerful. Barton has an innate instinct for the
drama that resides within the vocal phrase: ‘Judex ergo, cum sedebit’
floated aloft the resonant chordal brass before plummeting an octave, the
sound delving into our hearts and souls. Her ‘Recordare Jesu pie’ was
gentle and sincere; ‘Lacrymosa dies illa’ was poised against the sobbing
throb of the strings. Davidsen and Barton intertwined sensuously in ‘Salve
me’, though I’m not sure Verdi’s pianissimo was observed. And, the
Agnus Dei was perfectly tuned and composed, though subsequently marred by
some wayward and missing flute entries.

Frenchman Benjamin Bernheim offered a tender tenor in ‘Ingemisco, tanquam
reus’ (I groan, like the sinner I am) conveying a sense of the frailty of
man, and unfolded the narrative persuasively building to his plea, on a
secure high B, ‘Statuens in parte dextra’ (Let me stand at your right
hand). Hungarian bass G·bor Bretz made less theatrical or emotive impact.
Despite the spooky, spiky lower strings accompaniment, his entry ‘Mors
stupebit’ felt rather distant, and the emphatic statement in the Dies Irae,
‘Confutatis maledictis’, was surely not con forza? But elsewhere,
Bretz displayed a lovely legato line, and real elegance and nobility – as
in ‘Oro supplex et acclinis’ (Bowed down in supplication I beg You); and,
in the Lacrymosa he offered a softness of tone against the crystalline
sheen of Barton.

At the close, Pappano dared to hold the silence: a time for deep

This ROH’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem was broadcast live on BBC Radio.

Claire Seymour

Verdi: Requiem

Lise Davidsen (soprano), Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Bernheim
(tenor), G·bor Bretz (bass), Antonio Pappano (conductor), Orchestra and
Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Tuesday 23rd October

product_title=Verdi: Requiem, Royal Opera House, 23rd October 2018
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Lise Davidsen

Photo credit: Florian Katolay