Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the two greatest opera composers of the 19th century, were rivals in life. Both born in 1813, now no longer rivals, they were celebrated this past year in various musical events.
Locally, the Opera Program in the University of Illinois School of Music recently offered Verdi's last operatic masterpiece, "Falstaff," as a bicentennial tribute. On Nov. 21, the grandiose performance of Verdi's "Manzoni Requiem" with soloists and various choral groups, and conducted by Ian Hobson, was a fitting climax to the Verdi celebrations.
This was a resplendent and moving occasion, reflecting the highest credit for all concerned: soloists, choruses, instrumentalists and the conductor and chorus directors who had prepared all these participants to produce such a magnificent result.
Masterworks can have strange origins. In 1868, Gioachino Rossini died and Verdi hit on the idea for a collective requiem to be written by 13 Italian composers, and he wrote the final "Libera me" section. The project fell through just before the premiere, much to Verdi's dismay.
But in 1873, Alessandro Manzoni, the author of the famous novel "I Promessi Sposi," died and Verdi decided to write a requiem in his memory, using, with some changes, the already written "Libera me" finale. At the premiere in 1874, Verdi's four soloists were the same singers as had appeared in the premiere of his famed opera "Aida" in 1872.
It was immediately noted that the vocal style of the "Requiem," especially for the soloists, was highly operatic. It seems strange now, 139 years later, that anyone then expected Verdi to have written in any other style! In previous generations, church music written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Rossini was similar to the vocal styles of their operas, albeit more serious in tone.
The stage at the Foellinger Great Hall in Krannert Center for the Performing Arts was crammed with serried ranks of choristers, both at the rear of the stage and in the choral balcony.
Taking part in the performance were the UI Chorale, conducted by its new director Kristina Boerger (40 members), the UI Oratorio Society, also conducted by Boerger (85 members), the UI Men's Glee Club, conducted by Barrington Coleman (44 members), and the UI Women's Glee Club, conducted by Andrea Solya (79 members). The total of chorus singers came to 248! Such an impressive commitment of time, energy and talent is something of which our community should be most proud.
To hear such an assemblage of singers letting loose in the terrifying music of the "Dies irae" section was an awe-inspiring experience, but also to hear them all singing softly at the beginning of the work, in the "Requiem and Kyrie" sections was equally impressive.
Among requiems I know, the "Dies irae" ("Day of Wrath") section of the Verdi "Requiem" is the most elaborate and terrifying. Here, the four fine soloists had a chance to do some outstanding singing.
Soprano Stephanie Gregory and mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim were especially moving in the pathetic "Ricordare, Jesu pie" ("Recall, merciful Jesus") section. Tenor Daniel Montenegro, performing instead of the previously announced Coleman, sang with clear and alluring voice the "Ingemisco" section, and the ringing voice of UI Professor Ricardo Herrera in the "Confutatis maledictis" section expressed vividly the terrors of the damned.
The combination of solo voices, choruses and the orchestra in the final "Lacrymosa" section of the "Dies Irae" was for me one of the most moving parts of this great work.
The members of the Sinfonia da Camera played with admirable vigor, especially the tympani, played by William Moersch, with Ricardo Flores striking the bass drum on the half beat at the dramatic opening of the "Dies irae" section. Also outstanding was the flute playing of Jonathan Keeble in the "Hostias" part of the "Offertorio" section.
The overall pacing of the work was expertly directed by Hobson.
The "Dies irae" section is so overpowering that it tends to overshadow the rest of the work. But on this occasion the performance of the second half gained strength as it went on , and the final "Libera me" section was very moving, with admirable singing from Gregory. With powerful singing by the chorus in the reprise of the "Dies irae" section and a complicated fugal episode, this mighty work came to an end with softly repeated singing of the words "Libera me."
After a moment of silence, strong waves of applause broke out, and most in the audience stood in appreciation. This was one of the most impressive performances by Sinfonia within memory.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.