Views of the Beyond: Verdi Requiem at the Fundação Gulbenkian

Verdi – Requiem

Soprano – Adriana González
Mezzo-Soprano – Marina Viotti
Tenor – Joshua Guerrero
Bass – Mika Kares

Coro Gulbenkian, Orquestra Gulbenkian / Lorenzo Viotti.
Concert performance.

Grande Auditório, Fundação Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal.  Friday, May 27th, 2022.

As a season finale, the Verdi Requiem is certainly the way to end the year with a statement.  And so it was at the Fundação Gulbenkian tonight, when former Music Director, Lorenzo Viotti, returned to lead the augmented forces, alongside an international quartet of soloists.  Among whom, one found the exciting young Guatemalteca soprano, Adriana González, making her debut in the soprano part, and Lorenzo’s sister, Marina, one of the most well-regarded young mezzos of our time.  The performance was broadcast live on the Gulbenkian’s website and remains available, for an indeterminate period, to watch on its YouTube channel

Photo: © Jorge Carmona – Gulbenkian Música

If there has been any silver lining in these last few years of plague, it’s that audience behaviour has improved – perhaps out of the embarrassment of not wanting to cough in front of others.  Sadly, this has now passed and unfortunately tonight’s performance was frequently punctured by loud coughs, as well as a few ringing cellphones.  Fortunately, it wasn’t enough to distract from what transpired to be an excellent performance on the whole.

Photo: © Jorge Carmona – Gulbenkian Música

Both Viotti frère and sœur are children of the theatre, and this was apparent in how both approached their respective assignments.   Viotti frère led a reading that was highly theatrical in approach, making this feel very much a piece of fiery drama.  But this dramatic approach was combined with an innate sense of phrasing that was deeply musical in approach, and revealed a profound sense of Verdian phraseology.  His tempi were generally sensible, swift for the most part, even if there were a few awkward gear changes, for example from the ‘requiem’ to the ‘kyrie’, which was a bit bumpy.  Viotti’s tempo for the ‘recordare’ was also somewhat slow and saggy, although both González and Viotti sœur sustained the long lines beautifully.  The Gulbenkian orchestra responded to their former chief with playing of virtuosity and power – those rapid descending string figures in the frequent restatements of the ‘dies irae’ were immaculately dispatched.  The bass drum player was a bit subdued at first but, by the time we got to the ‘libera me’, he was definitely going for it.  The trumpets, with four players joining in from off-stage, made a tremendous noise in the ‘tuba mirum’, and the quality of the brass playing throughout was superb.  Strings were always unanimous in tuning, even in those treacherous high cello parts at the start of the ‘offertorio’. 

Photo: © Jorge Carmona – Gulbenkian Música

Joshua Guerrero sang the tenor part with Italianate warmth.  His is a medium-sized lyric tenor with good musical instincts and easy reach on high.  He pulled the tone back nicely in his ‘hostias’, which he sang with quiet introspection, while his ‘ingemisco’ was sung with generous force.  Mika Kares was a tower of strength in the bass part, filling the textures with solid tone in his velvety bass.  His ‘confutatis’ revealed a tendency for the voice to discolour at the very top of the range, but the firmness of tone was impressive.

Photo: © Jorge Carmona – Gulbenkian Música

Viotti sœur brought a wealth of theatricality to her music.  She sang her ‘liber scriptus’ with prophetic fervour, incarnating a modern-day sibyl with her declarations of what was to pass.  She blended ravishingly with González in their duets, not least in an impeccably-pitched ‘agnus dei’ in which both voices sang in octaves as if almost one.  In her ‘lux aeterna’, she sang with so much poise, the voice floating ever higher, offering us a view of the beyond that was indeed fully of light.  Viotti’s mezzo is in such fabulous shape, from that warm bottom up to a shining top.  The effect of the ‘lux aeterna’ was heightened as the hall theatrically opened the drapes at the back of the platform to reveal the early evening light in the garden beyond – a very nice effect. 

Photo: © Jorge Carmona – Gulbenkian Música

González capped the textures with pulchritude.  Her soprano has a charming warmth to it that brings genuine humanity to everything she sang.  She floated her ‘sed’ in the ‘offertorio’ in an exquisite messa di voce opening up with creamy warmth, before pulling back magically and demonstrating some impressive breath control.  She soared over the combined forces in the ‘libera me’, giving us a beautifully sustained, and appropriately pppp, high B-flat, and later on giving us an impressively full high C.  This was González’ debut in the part and I have no doubt future performances will see her inject her opening entreaty to the ‘libera me’ with more forceful desperation.  That said, she filled the text with meaning throughout, the words always nicely forward.  Without doubt a singer to watch.

Photo: © Jorge Carmona – Gulbenkian Música

The choral work from the Coro Gulbenkian was staggeringly good.  From that very first ‘requiem’, it was clear that we were in for a very special evening.  Tuning was impeccably good and they filled the hall in a burst of golden sound.  The sheer blend of the voices, producing tone that was rounded, yet with a slight fizz of vibrato in the sopranos, was most impressive.  It has been a long time since I’ve heard choral singing of this quality.  They weren’t just about the volume though – the terrorized semi-whispering (yet always perfectly tuned) they found in the ‘libera me’ was haunting, and they dispatched the complex textures of the ‘sanctus’ with confidence and virtuosic ease.  They had clearly been exceptionally prepared by Inês Tavares Lopes.

Photo: © Jorge Carmona – Gulbenkian Música

This was a very special evening.  To hear choral singing of this quality was a genuine treat and they were partnered by an orchestra on top form.  Viotti frère fully brought out the theatricality of this masterpiece, making it an evening of genuine drama.  With a well-balanced solo quartet, and particularly satisfying singing from the ladies, this was a performance that truly lived.  The Gulbenkian audience greeted the performance with an instant standing ovation.   

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