Soprano elevates Verdi's 'Requiem'
[caption id="attachment_2798" align="alignright" width="220" caption="Helmuth Rilling conducts Tamara Wilson, Marietta Simpson, Yosep Kang, and Nathan Berg"][/caption]From the Register-Guard
The Oregon Bach Festival usually begins its fortnight of concerts with an epic choral work, and this year’s “Messa da Requiem” by Giuseppe Verdi fits that description perfectly. Verdi-the-dramatist turned the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead into what many consider one of his most stirring operas.
On Friday evening, Helmuth Rilling led the Oregon Bach Festival chorus and orchestra along with four soloists in a dramatically charged reading of this monumental score. The last minute inclusion of the luminous soprano Tamara Wilson and Rilling’s emphasis on the details of the drama, from the chilling fear of damnation to the hushed hope for peace, made for a thrilling evening.
Verdi was hardly a religious man. Most people who knew him considered him an atheist, and his wife worried incessantly about the state of his soul. Yet at the death of Italy’s literary hero, Alessandro Manzoni, Verdi announced that he would write a religious work to be performed in a church. Unlike other famous requiems, however, Verdi’s work is not about religious consolation or redemption but about the indignity of death itself. His last words are not “rest in peace” but “libera me.” The pre-concert speaker, Barbara Corrado Pope, rightly called it a “defiant requiem.”
Rilling is a master of eliciting dramatic contrasts from his musical forces, and the orchestra and chorus responded skillfully to his directions. The Bach Festival chorus, prepared by Kathy Saltzman Romey, displayed excellent diction, controlled fortissimos, and dolce pianissimos. The thrice-repeated “Dies irae” was chilling each time, and the quiet of the introductory “Requiem aeternum” and the last gasp of “libera me” were shimmering.
In the orchestra, the strings produced some lovely moments, especially in the opening section as the violins entered on whispered high notes. The woodwinds, notably the clarinet, bassoon, and flute, added crucial figurations throughout. The trumpets in “Tuba mirum” were placed in the balconies and outside the hall; they began their call to judgment in a ragged fashion, but by the end we could all believe that the day had arrived.
But this is an opera, after all, and the soloists are the crucial ingredients. Tenor Yosep Kang burst forth in the first solo line, “Kyrie,” with a vibrant and lovely voice, full of squillo. His most important moment, “Ingemisco,” was a gem of proportion and beauty. Although I would have preferred a richer sound from the bass, Nathan Berg made good dramatic use of his flexible voice. At times, however, his interpretive choices were curious; in some places, for instance, where Verdi asked for legato singing, Berg sang percussive staccato lines. The mezzo, Marietta Simpson, struggled. Her lower register was warm but her upper range, in which Verdi places much of mezzo vocal line, was thin and forced.
Wilson, the soprano, was in a league of her own. With a gleaming voice, both powerful and intimate, she sang high B flats sweetly and softly and rang through the forte chorus and orchestra with high C’s. Her messa di voce on a high G was exquisite. At every turn, she sang with beauty and drama. The last section of the work, the extended “Libera me” for soprano and chorus, was a tour de force. Simply put, Tamara Wilson turned what could have been very good performance of Verdi’s “Requiem” into a magnificent one.
Marilyn Farwell, a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon, reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-Guard.