Searching for the Hereafter: The Verdi Requiem at the Royal Opera House

Verdi – Messa da Requiem

Lise Davidsen (sop)
Jamie Barton (mez)
Benjamin Bernheim (ten)
Gábor Bretz (bass)

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Antonio Pappano.
Concert performance.

Just before this concert performance of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem began, the Royal Opera’s Music Director, Antonio Pappano, greeted the audience with a brief speech to set the tone for the evening.  He reminded us that this was a concert to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the company’s royal charter, as well as a tribute to those who died in World War One and also to the late Montserrat Caballé.  The performance was followed by a gala dinner for ‘high value’ donors in the Floral Hall.

As a one-off concert performance, tonight certainly showed some signs of preparations not really being completely finished.  Ensemble wasn’t always immaculate – the fugue in the ‘libera me’ threatened to come off the rails, and the flute in the ‘agnus dei’ went someplace different to the two soloists.  The Royal Opera Chorus has made some major improvements under the guidance of their chorus master William Spaulding.  Yet, the basses had significant disagreements over pitch in the unaccompanied ‘te decet hymnus’ in the opening ‘requiem’ and the woolly tone wasn’t always on the note.  The ladies were fine but did seem somewhat undermanned in the double chorus of the ‘sanctus’, the tone sounding threadbare.  The tenors sounded fantastic all night, firm and shining out of the texture.  The orchestra, other than some ensemble slips, occasionally absent trumpets, and raw intonation in the strings in that tricky passage at the start of the ‘offertorium’, were on stronger form than usual.

Antonio Pappano led an extrovert reading.  As so often with him, the shaping of climaxes felt perfunctory – the build up from the ‘requiem’ to the ‘kyrie’ seemed to just be blasted out of nowhere rather than a gradual awakening.  His tempo for the ‘lacrymosa’ also felt somewhat saggy.  Again, the climax to the ‘libera me’ felt dutiful, just blasted out, rather than the logical outcome of a finely-crafted musical argument.

The house assembled a quartet of very promising, youthful singers.  Lise Davidsen is the owner of what could be one of the major voices of our time.  Yet, the technique is unfinished.  The sound is absolutely huge, there was something quite thrilling as she capped the texture in the quartet’s first contribution to the ‘kyrie’.  It sounds as if the support isn’t lined up – softer singing finds the voice not completely under control, with pitch sagging.  As an interpreter, Davidsen also sounds to my ears that she still has work to do.  Her ‘libera me’, rather than a cry of desperation, became an efficient performance of the notes, undeniably exciting, but rarely penetrating beyond to find the emotional truth within.  That Davidsen has a magnificent instrument is undeniable.  She has a truly rare gift, but I sincerely hope that she has the right people around her to help her genuinely realize the potential that she most definitely has.

Benjamin Bernheim is a known quantity now and what an absolutely glorious instrument he has.  The sound is bright, forward and well placed, carrying through the room and enveloping the audience in a bath of silvery sound.  This was his debut in the part and it did sound as if he’s still working it into the voice, the negotiation of the passaggio sounded a little tentative in places.  That said, the honeyed softer singing he gave us in the ‘ingemisco’ or the time-stopping beauty he found in the ‘hostias’ were truly remarkable.  Combined with some thrilling and open high notes, Bernheim confirmed his place as one of the most exciting tenors around.

Jamie Barton brought her plush mezzo to her music.  Not afraid to get deliciously chesty in places, she also pointed the text nicely.  However, despite the well-schooled and thoughtful singing, I found Barton’s performance somewhat anonymous.  Everything was there, but it lacked that visionary ability to communicate what lies beyond, that more seasoned interpreters have brought to the ‘lux aeterna’, for instance.  She’s still young as an interpreter and surely this is something that will come with time.  Barton and Davidsen blended nicely in the ‘quid sum miser’.  Gábor Bretz’ velvety bass was well deployed to his music, singing with warmth and generosity.

The audience received this performance with a warm and generous ovation, especially for Pappano.  I must admit that I didn’t share their enthusiasm on the whole.  There was a lot to admire here but I didn’t feel that I was taken on a journey to witness the afterlife, to be terrified and shaken.  It all felt somewhat genteel and routine, leaving me at one point removed rather than embraced by the work.  Clearly, given the way it was received by the audience, I was in the minority in that respect.

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Photo: © Rob Moore/ROH 1998


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