Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Verdi Requiem: "Opera in Ecclesiastical Dress"

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On December 2 the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast was devoted to the company’s 53rd iteration of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. The Requiem was first performed at the Met in 1901 on the occasion of the composer’s death; he had died earlier that year. Among those similarly honored in memoriam have been John Kennedy in 1964 and Luciano Pavarotti in 2008. This season’s edition was dedicated to the recently deceased baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

Verdi’s masterwork has a complex genesis. It was born when Verdi proposed that a requiem mass be forged in tribute to Gioacchino Rossini who died in 1868. Each section, according to the plan he presented to his editor, Ricordi, would be assigned to a contemporary Italian composer of opera or sacred music, thirteen in all, and all now largely forgotten with the exception of Verdi himself. The Rossini requiem was scheduled for premiere in 1869, then cancelled and not performed until 1988 in Stuttgart; it has been recorded and can be accessed on Youtube. Just a few years later, with the 1873 death of Alessandro Manzoni, author of the epic nineteenth-century novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), Verdi determined to compose a requiem on his own. He conducted his opus in 1874 on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death in the church of San Marco in Milan. The second performance took place soon thereafter at La Scala. Verdi toured his Requiem to theatres and auditoriums in Paris, London, and Venice.

In fact, the Requiem, scored as for grand opera, replete with a large orchestra and chorus and four soloists, had not been meant for a liturgical setting. As Verdi contemporary, conductor Hans Von Bülow, quipped, here was an “Opera in ecclesiastical dress.”
Towards the end of second section, the “Dies irae,” is the tenor aria “Ingemisco” which carries with it the indelible imprint of Verdi’s late manner. The despair of the sinner, mitigated by his hope for redemption, is powerfully expressed through the repetition of first-person pronouns.

Ingemisco tamquam reus,                                          I groan, as one who is accused,
culpa rubet vultus meus,                                            guilt reddens my check;
supplicanti parce, Deus.                                              spare Thy supplicant, O God.
Qui Mariam absolvisti,                                                Thou who absolved Mary,
et latronem exaudisti,                                                 and harkened to the thief,
mihi quoque spem dedisti.                                         Has given hope to me.
Preces meae non sunt dignae,                                    My prayers are worthless,
sed tu bonus fac benigne,                                           but Thou, who art good and kind,
ne perenni cremer igne.                                              Rescue me from everlasting fire.
Inter oves locum praesta,                                           With Thy sheep give me a place,
et ab hoedis me sequestra,                                         and from the goats keep me separate,
statuens in parte dextra.                                            Placing me at Thy right hand.

We have chosen the “Ingemisco” from a 1970 performance of the Requiem conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The singer is Placido Domingo early in his long career, his voice fresh, clarion, and alert to the drama.

Immediately following “Ingemisco” is “Lacrymosa,” scored for the four soloists and chorus. The text of the prayer is drawn not from scripture but from a poem by a 13th-century Franciscan monk, Thomas of Celano, and the infinite sadness of the music is intoned not by a single voice but by the weaving of multiple voices conventional in liturgical music.

Lacrymosa dies illa,                                                     Tearful that day shall be
qua resurget ex favilla,                                               when from the ashes shall arise
judicandus homo reus.                                                Guilty man to be judged.
Huic ergo parce, Deus,                                                Spare him the, O God,
pie Jesu Domine,                                                         gentle Lord Jesus,
dona eis requiem. Amen.                                            Grant him eternal rest. Amen

This “Lacrymosa,” recorded in 1967, is sung by a quartet of singers at their peak, Leontyne Price, Fiorenza Cossotto, Luciano Pavarotti, and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Herbert von Karajan conducts the chorus and orchestra of La Scala.

The Requiem concludes with “Libera me,” a prayer not integral to the mass itself; it is intended to be pronounced after the funeral. Like “Ingemisco,” “Libera me” is a first-person supplication, an expression of individual terror in the face of death and the wrath of God.

Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna,                      Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death
in die illa tremenda,                                                    on that dreadful day,
quando coeli movendi sunt et terra,                          when the heavens and earth shall be moved,
dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem.               when Thou shall come to judge the world by fire.
Tremens factus sum ego et timeo,                             I am full of fear and I tremble,
dum discussio venerit atque ventura ira.                  awaiting the day of account and wrath to come.
Dies irae, dies illa,                                                       Day of wrath, day of mourning,
calamitatis et miseriae,                                               day of calamity and misery,
dies magna et amara valde.                                       that day great and most bitter.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,                      Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.                                          and let perpetual light shine upon them.

Verdi is at his most operatic in this, the last section of the Requiem. The composer awards the highly emotional aria to the soprano. He demands a two-octave range deployed in extreme contrasts of high and low, loud and soft. The “Verdi soprano” descends to her low C again and again; she caps the piece with a high C unfurled above the thundering chorus; she floats the middle section in an ethereal pianissimo, ending with an octave vault to a perilous high B-flat. In a concert from the 1982 Ediburgh Festival, superlatively conducted by Claudio Abbado, we hear Welsh soprano Margaret Price. When at her best, as Price is here, there was no one better. She invests her famously pure timbre with a dramatic urgency that conveys the full measure of fearsome awe at the final judgement.