For the first time, I attended the pre-concert talk in the foyer of Robert Blackwood Hall. Callum Moncrieff, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Operations and Chorus Coordinator, mainly focused on discussing the MSO Chorus plus small anecdotes that people may not have known about Verdi’s Requiem. We learned that the 170 auditioned people on the Chorus lists come from a wide range of professions and backgrounds, both musically trained and not, and from near and far, including Bendigo and Ballarat. They volunteer their services for the love of singing at a high level with a wonderful orchestra, which is totally understandable. But surely, even given the financial scourge of COVID-19, there is some way that they can be remunerated to a small degree in this day and age? There were 120 singers in this performance and they sang like a well-oiled machine. Callum Moncrieff explained that what is different in Verdi’s Requiem is that, unlike his operas, there is so much singing for the Chorus. He also told us a little more about why Verdi wrote the Requiem in honour of the poet Manzone, to whom the work is dedicated. Verdi was an avowed agnostic and wrote the Requiem to be sung in a concert hall, not in a Roman Catholic Church, where women were not allowed to sing. We were told that the Bass drum would be hit VERY HARD (it was) and that the bassoons have a “very funky line” in the “Tuba Mirum”.
The performance of the Requiem began so softly that some people could not hear it and continued to rustle their sweet wrappers, squeak their chairs, and speaking voices could be heard through the ushers’ ear-pieces! Chief Conductor, Jaime Martin, waited until most of the noises had stopped and the work recommenced with six bars of supremely hushed cellos before the tenors entered with “Requiem”, followed by the rest of the choir. The key then changed from A Minor to A Major as the choir sang about the “eternal light of God”. In this first movement, the “Requiem” and “Kyrie”, it seemed to me from eight rows back, that the conductor was beating ahead of the beat as a number of conductors do, which led to a messy start to the work. That type of conducting does not always work with a choir in my opinion and there were many gaps between the orchestra and Chorus. It was useful for the Chorus to follow Mr. Martin mouthing the words, but following his baton seemed to present difficulties, and it took a while for the entire ensemble to gel.
The Tenor soloist, Kang Wang, entered at the “Kyrie” and his singing was magnificent. His voice has a thrilling timbre and it is easy to see why he is in demand all over the opera world. There was no straining in any part of his range – just beautifully modulated, clear, well-pitched, exciting singing. The Bass soloist, Jonathan Lemalu, sang reliably, if in a fairly understated way throughout the work, and I wondered if he might have had a slight cold. If so, he was solidly reliable but not as exciting as Kang Wang. Entering after the men, Latvian soprano, Maija Kovalevska, was most secure in her middle and lower ranges, but her highest notes were produced with such a wide vibrato that her pitch became flat. Having grown up listening to Joan Sutherland and Leah Crocetto (recently in Melbourne) singing the soprano solos, it was disappointing to have a soprano soloist with problematic top notes. Miss Kovalevska sang most of the work from memory and emoted in a totally suitable way, conveying the meaning of the words that she was singing, but her top notes let her down.
The second movement, the “Dies Irae” (Day of Anger) began with those LOUD bass drum bangs that sounded like a cannon firing. Mr. Martin took the movement at a fast and exciting pace. The trumpets set around the hall sounded marvellous and the orchestra produced a wall of sound that completely obliterated the choir – not that it mattered, as the music was so visceral. During a sudden p someone’s phone pinged a notification that was, surprisingly, totally in tune with the orchestra!
The mezzo-soprano, Catherine Carby, entered at the “Liber scriptus” with absolute security, a beautiful tone, and she and the tenor soloist were the anchors for the solo sections from here on. She never faltered, totally knew the work and expressed the meaning of the words superbly with well-shaped phrases throughout her performance. The timbre of her upper register was brighter than the soprano soloist’s tone so that she was able to cut through the orchestra in loud passages without forcing.
Sadly, in this second movement there continued to be a lot of sloppy timing between the orchestra and voices, but as the musical forces settled the disparate parts started to mesh and the number of clashes decreased. The orchestral introduction to the third section, the “Offertory”, was not securely with the conductor, but there was some lovely singing from the four soloists. How could they not sing well with Verdi’s delicious harmonies at, for example, “Quam olim Abrahae” with its wonderful forward impetus?
The “Sanctus” with its double chorus was performed superbly. The Chorus sound throughout the night was clean, clear, unforced and sounded like one voice per part. The Chorus had been wonderfully prepared by their director, Warren Trevelyan-Jones. The diction was first-rate with consonants at the ends of words, again, so clear. The Latin was pronounced correctly of course and all entries and stops were together. Very impressive. The Requiem would be nothing without a thoroughly excellent Chorus and the MSO Chorus shone. Musically the double chorus is very tricky but all parts kept together with accuracy, style and wonderfully wide-ranging dynamic contrasts.
The opening of the fifth section, “Agnus Dei”, with the two female soloists singing an octave apart was well anchored by Miss Carby so that the choir and orchestra entered on pitch, unlike some amateur choir performances.
Miss Carby’s entry for the “Lux aeterna” was ppp with a spinning tone that easily carried this very, very soft line into the auditorium. This movement, sung by the mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass soloists was also a delight. It was possible as an audience member to relax and just listen and enjoy, knowing that we were in very capable vocal “hands”.
In the final movement, “Libera me”, the opening and closing declamation by the soprano soloist was very moving as she totally understood what she was singing and almost acted out the meaning of the words. It was obvious from her facial expression that she had a detailed understanding of the entire work and had probably performed it many, many times. It was an operatic, dramatic performance.
Although there were a number of glitches in this performance it was impossible not to thoroughly enjoy the work. Perhaps it would have been better at Hamer Hall? There seemed to be something missing in the performance at Robert Blackwood Hall that I couldn’t pinpoint. It was a very operatic performance of a religious work, which is totally understandable given Verdi was mainly an opera composer, but I left feeling confused about the genre that I had just enjoyed hearing. There was beautiful singing and there was wonderful orchestral playing from every section of the orchestra, but the orchestra, as an accompaniment to the singers, did not always seem to have a coherent role in this performance.
Jennifer Turner reviewed “Verdi’s Requiem”, performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Robert Blackwood Hall on October 28, 2022.