SCRUTINY | TSO: Stars Align For Verdi Requiem With Sir Andrew Davis

By Joseph So on May 22, 2015

Verdi’s Requiem: Toronto Mendelssohn Choir / Noel Edison; Toronto Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis; Amber Wagner (soprano); Jamie Barton (mezzo); Frank Lopardo (tenor); Eric Owens (bass); Photo: Malcolm Cook

Verdi’s Requiem: TSO / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Toronto Mendelssohn Choir / Noel Edison at Roy Thomson Hall, Thursday, May 212015.

Once in a while, when the music gods are smiling down from heaven and all the stars are aligned, an audience will get to witness an extraordinary musical event, a performance that will stay in memory for a very long time. Last evening’s Verdi Requiem was just such an event. To be sure, any time this work is performed is an occasion, as it represents Giuseppe Verdi at his greatest, an oratorio that is at once spiritual and operatic. But it takes extraordinary musical forces to bring it to its fullest glory. Likely the most frequently performed of all requiems with the possible exception of the Mozart, it requires a great orchestra, a superb quartet of soloists, and massive choral forces that have volume but also refinement.

Having heard the Verdi Requiem countless times over a span of nearly fifty years, I find it invariably enjoyable, almost always satisfying, sometimes awe-inspiring, and very occasionally deeply moving. I consider this oratorio my favourite, although I love the Brahms too. Ein Deutsches Requiem (1868) precedes the Verdi Manzoni Requiem (1874). The two can’t be more different. Verdi is very dramatic and set to standard Latin Roman Catholic Liturgy, and focuses on death. The Brahms is set to text from the Lutheran Bible, and it has a more contemplative and consolatory-redemptive quality – Brahms is meant for the living rather than the dead. I’ve vacillated between the two over the years, but given that I’m an opera buff, I have to say musically I’d go with the more showy and operatic Verdi, but for a spiritual uplift the Brahms would be my choice.

Photo: Malcolm Cook

For the 40th anniversary celebration of Sir Andrew Davis’ association with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, he is in town to conduct a whole lot of things, with the Verdi Requiem as the centerpiece. He brings with him a fantastic quartet of soloists in soprano Amber Wagner, mezzo Jamie Barton, tenor Frank Lopardo, and bass Eric Owens. With the choral forces being the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, it promised to be an exciting evening. And exciting it was! I was so happy it was performed without an intermission, and as far as I could tell from my front row on the mezzanine, there was no admission after the piece started (unless the latecomers were put in the very back). The audience was held in rapt attention during the 80-minute duration of the piece. There was no premature applause, although as usual the clapping started before Davis put his hands down at the end – this is really a disease of North American audiences! You just don’t see it in Europe. Of all works, this piece requires a brief moment of silence at the end. O well…

As to the performance itself – what can I say. Davis is an old hand, and he achieved the requisite hushed quality in the beginning, admirably aided by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir under Noel Edison (who was brought onstage at the final bows). There was plenty of fire and brimstone to be sure – the Dies Irae was enough to strike the fear of God in every heart – but I thought it interesting that Davis deliberately muted the bass drums in the repeats, something I had not seen other conductors do. I’ve heard more bombasts, more over-the-top drama in other performances. Davis’ conducting last evening struck me as just right. There were a few (very few) instances of choral balance issues and orchestral balance issues. I’ll bet it won’t happen tonight or tomorrow night. (I am tempted to hear it again!)

Photo: Malcolm Cook

The soloists were all first rate. If I had to choose, I would say the women had the edge. Jamie Barton’s gleaming mezzo and exemplary legato was such a pleasure – no wonder she took Cardiff! Her Liber Scriptus, Quid sum miser, and Lux Eterna were all amazing. She was not afraid to use chest voice, but it was very musical and without vulgarity. Barton sang Emilia at the COC Otello way back in 2009. Isn’t it time to bring her back for something more important? Like Adalgisa in Norma, maybe?

Equally fine was soprano Amber Wagner. We last heard her in the title role of Ariadne auf Naxos – opening night no less! Adrianne Pieczonka was ill and Wagner stepped in. I’ll never forgot her sumptuous “Es gibt ein Reich.” It’s time to bring her back, COC! Last night, she sang with opulent tone and plenty of power. When she let it rip, the effect was thrilling. In Recordare, she was occasionally flat, but it was a minor quibble. I always listen for the end of the adagio section of Libera me – well, she was wonderful, with an exquisite, shimmering pianissimo high B flat at the end of the word “Requiem.” Brava!

As for the men – it was great to hear Frank Lopardo again, a singer I heard many times in the past but not in recent years. He will turn 58 this year, and having sung some 30 years, the voice is still in fine shape, and more robust than before. He uses a very soft mezza voce, ideal in some moments of Ingemisco and at the beginning of Hostias. Some might say it’s a bit of crooning, but hey, Jon Vickers crooned! In the case of Lopardo, it is not a falsetto but a voix mixte, happily with no break when he does a crescendo. It is wonderful to hear a singer in full maturity and still singing so well.

Eric Owens, whom I saw as a superb Dutchman two months ago in Washington DC, is as much a specialist in oratorio/symphonic work as in opera. Here, he supplied all the gravitas one would want in this piece, even though he doesn’t have the dark, dark bass the likes of Matti Salminen, for example. Still, Owens was up to the task, his Mors stupebit and Confutatis were impressive.

Photo: Malcolm Cook

To my ears, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is a national treasure. I’ve loved their work ever since I started attending performances in Toronto. They must have sung this Requiem hundreds of times over the years. The smooth sound, the hushed tones, and the fiery outburst were all there – it’s an unalloyed pleasure.

Yes, you can say the performance did full justice to Verdi and to this divine score. Bravi tutti. There are two more performance – tonight (Friday May 22) at 7:30 pm, and tomorrow (Saturday May 23) 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. Tickets are discounted, so go and support great music!


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Joseph So

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