Giuseppe Verdi worshipped music and drama. He held more complicated feelings toward Catholicism—some scholars describe him as an atheist, others as merely ambivalent. It makes sense, then, that his Requiem sounds more like an opera than a religious ritual.
An opulent reckoning
Opera Philadelphia certainly brought a sense of narrative scope, along with plenty of grandeur, to its first performances of the work in more than 30 years. Their assumption followed a traditional concert presentation—with orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists assembled together on the Academy of Music’s stage—but the theatricality of the composer’s vision of the day of reckoning emerged with forceful clarity.
Credit is due all around for the thrills afforded by this performance. From the podium, Corrado Rovaris shaped a reading of the score that brimmed with remarkable cohesion, while still highlighting the myriad individual elements embedded by the composer in the score. The somber Requiem and Kyrie Eleison that open the piece plunged into a Dies Irae that gave the impression of being dragged to the underworld on a raft of thickly textured strings and thundering timpani.
The trumpets in the Tuba Mirum section—some on the stage, others in various levels of the house—created wall-to-wall waves of copper-colored brassiness. Rovaris’s reading of the concluding Libera Me drew out the existential anguish at the heart of this section, as the soprano soloist pleads for God’s deliverance, while also recognizing the section’s stature as a great dramatic showpiece. The opulence of opera and the reverence of religion shine through in tandem.
The players get their due
The Opera Philadelphia orchestra has been so impressive in its consistency under Rovaris in recent years that it perhaps doesn’t get its due. It was nice to see the players occupying pride of place center stage. The same can be said for the chorus, masterful here under Elizabeth Braden’s direction. In a work that calls for unity across a range of dynamics, they delivered again and again, with the silvery and jubilant “Sanctus” a particular highlight.
Flair and commitment
The vocal soloists come from the world of opera, as is common with this piece, and they bring an appropriate sense of presence and flair to their performances. But most importantly, they sang the music on opening night with enough commitment and focus to match the high standard set by the orchestra and chorus. First among equals was Evan LeRoy Johnson, whose youthful, clarion tenor suited the hopeful Ingemisco perfectly.
In an era of pushed-down baritones calling themselves basses, In-Sung Sim brought a real profundo sound to his solos. Leah Crocetto flaunted a supple soprano with a pleasantly fast vibrato that rang out into every corner of the house during Libera Me, as if up to heaven. Although the text is sung in Latin, Crocetto also showed off an Italianate bite in her delivery.
Jennifer Johnson Cano joined the concert just 24 hours before the first performance, after the originally scheduled Daniela Mack cited illness and withdrew. Making her Opera Philadelphia debut, she displayed no visible signs of nervousness, and seamlessly melded with the other forces on stage. Her mezzo-soprano is not the darkly colored Italian instrument one usually hears in this music, but that brightness worked to her advantage in the sympathetic Agnus Dei. Cano and Crocetto complemented each other beautifully in the Recordare duet.
Cutting no corners
I am not going to speculate on what prompted Opera Philadelphia to program Requiem in a season slot that likely otherwise would have gone to a fully staged work. The final result of this concert certainly suggests that no corners were cut in bringing an absolutely stirring performance to Philly’s music-going public. Long may this fine company reign.
What, When, Where
Requiem. Music by Giuseppe Verdi. Corrado Rovaris, conductor. Leah Crocetto, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Evan LeRoy Johnson, In-Sung Sim, soloists. Opera Philadelphia. Through February 2, 2020, at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or operaphila.org.
The Academy of Music is a wheelchair-accessible venue. For more information about the accessibility of Kimmel campus venues, call Patron Services at (215) 893-1999 / (215) 875-7633 TTY or email [email protected].