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A Breathtaking Verdi Requiem

Lisa Hirsch on October 21, 2011
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
San Francisco Symphony Chorus

When James Levine withdrew from the Metropolitan Opera’s fall season, a series of dominos fell in the musical world, including the scheduled appearance of Fabio Luisi to conduct four performances of the Verdi Requiem with the San Francisco Symphony. Whatever ticketholders felt when Luisi cancelled, no one who heard James Conlon conduct Wednesday night could possibly have been disappointed, as he led a thrilling performance of sweeping power, by turns terrifying, tender, and moving. He succeeded brilliantly in bringing the performers together and making a musical and dramatic whole out of a work that is all too easy to fumble. Every choice of tempo and dynamic seemed exactly right, throughout the evening; with one minor exception toward the end, transitions, even the most tricky, were handled smoothly.

As Michael Steinberg’s program notes reminded the audience, this Requiem was composed as a concert, not liturgical, piece. To it Verdi brought all of his skills as an opera composer, and it surely has as much drama as any opera. It’s an immense work, 90 minutes long, and makes extreme demands on all participants. The chorus must sing with hushed reverence in the Requiem Aeternam, roar in the Dies Irae, and dance lightly through the rapid, fugal Sanctus. This the Symphony Chorus did, and more, with glorious sound that was miraculously both transparent and massive; all this, and with exceptional diction as well. All hail the superb preparation by chorus director Ragnar Bohlin.

Dolora Zajick
Dolora Zajick

The vocal soloists, assigned most of the text, bear the largest burden of the drama, and this performance had a stellar quartet in soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, tenor Frank Lopardo, and bass Ain Anger. At 60, Zajick remains a model Verdi mezzo, with ironclad technique and almost no audible wear on her voice despite more than a quarter-century of singing the dramatic mezzo repertory. How many singers can match her combination of vocal opulence, power, and range, or the magisterial ease with which she lightened her voice to a soprano-like sound and floated through the “Quid sum miser”?

Not many — but Radvanovsky, turning in an equally splendid performance, is one of those few, her solo at “Sed signifier sanctus Michael” a long-breathed wonder, her Libera Me sung with passionate urgency and drama. Elsewhere in the Offertorio, she trilled neatly and unleashed more than one gorgeous messa di voce, a gradual crescendo and decrescendo on one pitch. The two made a magnificent pair in the treacherous octaves of the Agnus Dei, phrasing together with supernal poise and perfect tuning.

Sondra Radvanovsky
Sondra Radvanovsky

The men were nearly as impressive. Anger sang with firm authority throughout, with his Mors Stupebit and Confutatis Maledictus special highlights. Lopardo brought heartfelt Verdian style and elegance to his part and was exceptional in the Ingemisco and Hostias, trilling where the score calls for it and handling the many ornaments with easy grace.

Underlying all of this, the Symphony played heroically, passionately, tirelessly, leaving the spotlight mostly to the vocal soloists and chorus. The brass brought particular splendor to the tattoo just before the Tuba Mirum, the flutes wove magic around the Lux Aeternum, and principal bassoon Stephen Paulson played his solos in the Quid sum miser with plangent beauty.

The Requiem ended as perfectly as could be: with a long, long silence following the hushed final Libera Me, and then tremendous waves of applause.

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