Mass Appeal

October 26th, 2017

One of the highlights of the season takes place November 24–December 2 when Music Director Emeritus James Levine leads a special concert series of Verdi’s Requiem. A quartet of distinguished soloists joins the brilliant Met Orchestra and Chorus for this overwhelming work, which inhabits unique stylistic ground between sacred music and opera. By Jay Goodwin

Verdi’s Requiem is a signature work for James Levine, who has led all 13 Met performances of the piece since he first conducted it with the company in 1981. The Requiem returns this season for the first time since 2008, when the maestro led a performance in memory of Luciano Pavarotti. “In the best of all worlds, the Verdi Requiem would be presented every season,” says Maestro Levine. “Verdi recognized the human drama within the Requiem text. This gave him the opportunity to write a work in many ways more compelling and universal, set to music unencumbered by mise-en-scène.”

That Verdi, an agnostic and ardent humanist, should have written one of the most inspired pieces of sacred music in the repertoire is something of a surprise. But he was driven to do so by the deaths of two men who were both personal heroes of his and who he believed represented the finest that Italian culture had to offer: composer Gioachino Rossini and author Alessandro Manzoni, who died within five years of one another. With their passing, Verdi felt that a proud era of Italian creativity had come to an end, and his Requiem—the traditional medium for mourning and remembrance—is a paean to that chapter of Italian history. Though he was not a religious man, he did place faith in the power of words and music, and of art and culture in general, and so the work is infused with a powerful and sincere sense of spirituality and feeling. 

What is not surprising is the brilliance of the vocal writing. Throughout his career, Verdi proved himself one of history’s greatest and most demanding composers for the voice, and he wrote some of his greatest and most demanding vocal music for the Requiem. The stylistic and technical demands for each of the four solo parts are daunting and very specific. The soprano soloist, for example, must have tremendous breath to sing expansive sustained phrases, power on top for climactic moments, and a bright, clear timbre, while the tenor must be able to produce both meltingly lyrical legato singing and a muscular, clarion strength.  

Four experienced Verdians rise to the challenge at the Met this season. Soprano Krassimira Stoyanova has sung in Verdi operas at the Met more than 20 times, with appearances as the leading ladies in La Traviata, Otello, and Aida. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk has sung the Requiem—as well as Azucena in Il Trovatore and Amneris in Aida—around the world to great acclaim. Aleksandrs Antonenko, the Met’s reigning Otello, takes on the tenor solo part, and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto—who has given nearly 80 performances of leading Verdi roles at the Met since his 1980 debut as the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo— completes the quartet. 

The Requiem also contains some of Verdi’s most inspired music for orchestra and chorus, which, like the soloists, are called upon to produce an immense range of emotion and mood. From the hushed exhortations of the “Requiem aeternam” to the weeping despair of the “Lacrimosa” and the cataclysmic musical vision of Judgment Day in the “Dies irae,” the Requiem offers the Met Orchestra and Chorus ample opportunity to take center stage. 

Completed in 1874, the Requiem is one of Verdi’s late masterpieces, written after all of his operas except the final pair of Otello and Falstaff. In it, the composer brought to bear everything he had learned in a lifetime of writing for the stage, so despite having no storyline, per se, it crackles with dramatic energy. The more abstract nature of the piece had the additional advantage of freeing Verdi’s musical imagination from the constraints of plot, character, and setting. If he wanted to write a quartet one moment, a solo for bass the next, and a choral fugue immediately after that, he could do so without having to contrive a sequence of stage events to match. In the end, it is the combination of these operatic instincts and Verdi’s personal, spiritual motivations for writing the piece that create its unique blend of drama and transcendence.  

“For me, there may be no better work for building and developing the musical core of an opera company,” Levine says. “The Requiem encompasses Verdi’s full range of expression—from the most lyric to the most dramatic—and it makes tremendous demands on the skills and energy of a huge performing force of orchestra, chorus, and soloists. It is the quintessential company collaboration. And the spine-tingling thrill of hearing a great performance of Verdi’s Requiem can last a lifetime.”