This past weekend at Bard College, Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem was performed by The Orchestra Now and Bard Festival Chorale, supplemented by members of the Bard College Conservatory Orchestra and Bard Festival Chorale under the baton of Leon Botstein with James Bagwell conducting singers. It was first performed in the Milan cathedral on 22 May 1874 on the first anniversary of the novelist Alessandro Manzoni’s death with Verdi himself conducting. At that time women were not permitted to sing in Roman Catholic churches; Verdi received special permission to employ a soprano and mezzo-soprano.
Among the nearly hundred singers at Sosnoff Theater about half, thankfully, were women. This dramatic work is full of vibrant contrasts: the soft, mellow Requiem first movement by the chorus is succeeded by the full orchestra with drums, horns, and chorus chanting the medieval Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), which remains memorably shocking even in our jaded era.
Verdi was known to be an atheist in private and civil agnostic in social company. Working with this famous medieval theme of immanent apocalypse, Verdi appears to be conjuring Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, which satirizes the concept of hell, as it attacks the hypocrisy of various popes and church administrators, as well as Dante’s personal or imagined enemies. Verdi was, with this medieval motif, re-asserting humanist critique, but without Dante’s often comic twists. In obliquely attacking the hypocrisy of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church in Italy, he took great risks and received vigorous critique, yet his towering art overcame all obstacles, breaking even the ban on female singers. In the “Sanctus” movement it is the chorus of the populace and not the ecclesia which is declared holy. Likewise, the “Angus Dei” celebrates those martyred at the hands of the ecclesia.
Today the obsessive emphasis on apocalyptic fire may conjure glancing ecological contemplation in this work which exhibits transcendent power in the haunting refrains of the chorus and unified explosions from the orchestra under Botstein and Bagwell’s direction. While some movements offer exceptional thrill, the whole is greater than its parts—while listening the passage of time becomes irrelevant.
Bass Wei Wu excelled in “Tuba mirum” and “Confutatis” with shivering echo. Soprano Margaret Tigue pleasingly soared without affectation in “Agnus Dei” and the concluding “Libera me.” Mezzo-soprano Chloë Schaaf was delicate and wonderful in “Recordare” and especially forceful in the penultimate “Lux aeterna,” while tenor Cooper Nolan in “Ingermisco.” The positional polarities of the soloists were reversed on stage, as compared to Verdi’s original placements, leaving the ladies on the right hand before the orchestra, which may have been a subtle, contemporary political statement.
There is a mystical and hypnotic quality to this unusual oratorio. The varied rhythms, superlative orchestrated contrasts, and fluent dynamics assault the senses in a visceral manner, yet somehow achieves intellectual stimulation at the fringes of wonder. There is deep irony in the obsessively narrow theme of wrath and fire: as if the Roman Church was being accused of being an infernal, Satanic machine. The exuberant reversal of “Lux Eterna” and the “Libera me” hail a new humanist horizon beyond the view or purview of the Roman Church.
This extraordinary concert was dedicated to the memory of internationally acclaimed Mozartian baritone Sanford Sylvan who taught at Bard College and Juilliard School in the vocal arts programs and who passed away last January.
You may sit at home with a recording by Pavarotti and Ramey with the volume at full blast, yet that cannot compare to being there at Sosnoff with nearly a hundred voices and fifty musicians. Obviously, everyone knows this, and that is why both performances were completely sold out.