Thank you, Signor Verdi, for writing the world’s most operatic Requiem. Thank you for the wondrous moments when tears come to the eyes at the sheer beauty of what you wrote, or when the heart surges at those fearsome fortissimos where all four soloists are singing their lungs out and the chorus is blasting us with primitive passion and the orchestra is doing huge runs and enormous crashes. Or when everything suddenly hushes and a breeze passes by, or a bird, and the mezzo or the soprano appears from nowhere with another of your endless series of melodies. What a gift this piece of music is. (And how marvellously strange is the sound of the soprano and mezzo singing an octave apart - it ought to be the most simple thing in the world, yet it's just magic.)
In this work Verdi, freed from the constraints of the stage – peasant, gypsy or courtier choruses, duets between lovers, maleficent basses and scary contraltos – is able to indulge in the luxury of just writing wondrous music as and how he pleases. Yes, of course he has the wonderfully dramatic lines of the Requiem Mass holding it all together, but he isn’t affected by the mechanics of getting people on and off the stage, and all the other typical trappings of a 19th century opera. And he’s working with a script that has more depth, perhaps, than any other libretto he used in his career.
You can see how this piece came into existence on Wikipedia. More important is its effect on an audience, and tonight at the Dunedin Town Hall I heard it live for the first time ever. I’ve known the work since I bought an LP of it back when I was a teenager, and I’ve loved it ever since. The conductor was Pietari Inkinen, the 33-year-old Finnish conductor who’s presently the music director of the NZSO. He looks a bit like a schoolboy, but he had no problem commanding the forces: a large orchestra, four soloists and a massive (very much expanded) Dunedin City Choir. Lisa Harper-Brown was for me the highlight of the evening. That’s not to say the other soloists were unequal to the task, but this soprano has a superb command of her vocal instrument and a massive sound. Several times she held solidly onto her music stand as though the sheer power of what she was doing might blow her away. But she was equally capable of producing a wondrous soft sound that still managed to hit the back of the hall. She was just fabulous.
Soprano Margaret Medlyn took the mezzo/contralto part. It requires a wide range (as does the proper soprano part) and in her upper register, Medlyn was terrific. Sometimes the lower notes seemed to get overwhelmed, but it may have been where I was sitting in the audience. I suspect that being off to one side meant that some of the sound went by me. Rosario La Spina was the tenor. He’s Australian by birth, of Sicilian descent, and a former bricklayer. He has a big solid tenor voice, somehow ‘thick’ in its colour. Someone else tonight described him as a Helden tenor, but I don’t think that’s quite what he is. Anyway, he rang his voice around the Town Hall with ease. Jud Arthur was the bass, and what a great sound he has. His part in the Requiem is reminiscent of many of Verdi’s dark bass characters, and Arthur brought that great dark sound to his singing.
What wonderful things Verdi does with the chorus - sorry, choir. They're things that he could never have achieved on stage: eerie whispering sounds, the edginess of hearing well over a hundred people all singing softly at once, joyful counterpoint, massive harmonic stretches and utter excitement. This aspect of the piece was terrific.
The orchestra has plenty to do, though I don't think it's ever stretched. Much of what they play is similar to music Verdi provides for his opera orchestras; it's just on a bigger scale. And yet his simple tricks (they're things he does throughout his operas, particularly the ones in the first half of his career) - the little echoes from wind instruments, the shrieking piccolo in the climaxes, the bass note on the beat from cellos and basses answered by a chord from the upper strings: this last could be so banal, and yet in the one particular moment when I became aware of it I thought how wonderfully evocative it was at that point. And of course there's the great brass fanfares early in the piece, reminiscent of Aida. Only very late in his career did Verdi start doing really interesting things with his orchestra - The Merry Wives of Windsor is quite unlike early Verdi. He was never a great colourist, and you sometimes feel he relied on the well-tested tricks that Italian opera composers had been doing for a long time (and many of those techniques were based on Italian popular songs). For all that, what he does in the Requiem always hits the spot, and every so often there are moments that a spine-tingling: that hectic rush up and down that the orchestra does at one point - it only happens once, I think - lifts you out of your seat.
Did I enjoy finally hearing the Requiem in a live performance? You bet I did!