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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem (1874)
Krassimira Stoyanova, (soprano); Veronica Simeoni, (mezzo); Francesco Meli, (tenor); Georg Zeppenfeld, (bass),
Chorus of the Opera House Zurich.
Ballet Zurich
Philharmonia Zürich /Fabio Luisi
Choreographer and Stage Director, Christian Spuck. Set Designer, Christian Shmidt. Costume designer, Emma Ryott. Lighting, Martin Gebhardt. Chorus Master, Marcovalerio Marletta. Dramaturgy, Michael Küster, Claus Spahn
rec. 1 and 3 December 2016, Zürich Opera House
Sound format, DD 5.1. DTS 5.1. LPCM stereo. Picture format 16:9 NTSC. Full HD
Transcript of Interviews in German, English and French with Fabio Luisi and Christian Spuck
Subtitles in Latin (original language), English, German and French
ACCENTUS MUSIC DVD ACC20392 [2 discs: 154 mins]

Verdi was not a religious man. Indeed, it is fair to say he was, like many contemporary artists and Republicans, anti-clerical and particularly anti-Pope. They held the latter view in response to the activities of holders of the Papal office over the period of the fight for Italy’s unification and independence. Verdi equally clearly recognised the place of the Catholic Church in the contemporary society in which he lived and worked. Verdi revered two compatriots, fellow composer Rossini and the writer Manzoni, and at the death of each he proposed the composition of a Requiem (review). That for Rossini was to be a collaborative venture among contemporary Italian composers. Verdi wrote the Libera Me but problems arose in respect of the chorus and orchestra and the project floundered. Verdi met the costs incurred.

In the year of Rossini’s death Verdi visited his idol Alessandro Manzoni. He had read Manzoni’s novel I Promessi Sposi when aged sixteen and in his fifty-third year he wrote to a friend, ‘according to me, (he) has written not only the greatest book of our time but one of the greatest books that ever came out of the human brain.’ The novel has been described as representing for Italians all of Scott, Dickens and Thackeray rolled into one and infused with the spirit of Tolstoy. It was not merely the nature of Manzoni’s partly historical story that gave the work this ethos, but the language. With it Manzoni made vital steps towards a national Italian language to replace the many dialects and foreign administrative languages present in the peninsular.

When Manzoni died in May 1873, after a fall, Verdi was devastated to the extent he could not go to the funeral. A week after the funeral Verdi went to Milan and visited the grave alone. Then, through his publisher, Ricordi, he proposed to the Mayor of Milan that he should write a Requiem Mass to honour Manzoni, to be performed in Milan on the first anniversary of the writer’s death. Verdi proposed that he himself would compose the entire Mass, pay the expenses of preparing and printing the music, specify the church for the first performance, choose the singers and chorus, rehearse them and conduct the premiere; the city would pay the cost of the performance. Thereafter the Requiem would belong to Verdi. The city accepted with alacrity.

With artistic unity guaranteed by a single composer, Verdi intended the work to have a regular place in the repertoire, just like his operas. Although he had already composed a Libera Me for the aborted Rossini Requiem, he re-wrote it, thus ensuring compositional coherence. He selected the Church of San Marco for the premiere, considering it to have the best proportions and acoustics. On May 22nd 1874, the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, with an orchestra of one hundred and a chorus of one hundred and twenty, it was given to acclaim. Three days later Verdi conducted another performance at La Scala. The work is certainly not in the tradition of ecclesiastical works set to counterpoint and fugues, a fact that at least some purists considered distracted the listener from the religious message. Despite criticisms of this nature, the Requiem travelled to Paris where Verdi was made a Commander of the Legion of Honour. After Paris, London and Vienna followed with the work acclaimed in each.

The Manzoni Requiem, as the work is often called, has been referred to by some cynics as ‘Verdi’s best opera’. Certainly, the greatest recorded performances seem to have been under the baton of renowned opera conductors. This is the case here with Fabio Luisi, a renowned opera conductor, and Verdian, on the rostrum. But few if any of the extant recordings of this great oratorio have been treated, as here, not only to an augmented choir of the Zurich Opera, a giving a total one hundred and ten persons, but also the full ballet corps of the company. The project was conceived by Christian Spuck, the ballet company’s artistic director, and in charge of choreography and the staging of the performance. The bonus, if in this case it can be called that, of an extended interview and scenes with Spuck, and involving the designers also, explaining how his artistic vision materialised, is a rare opportunity to share the creative processes involved and should not be missed. Unlike so many oratorio performances, where the chorus lines up behind the soloists, in this performance the two, along with the corps de ballet, mingle and move adding body movements, and even drawings, in an effort to give added stress and meaning to the words.

Like the conducting, the choral singing is quite magnificent and viscerally exciting in the Dies irae. Two of the soloists had withdrawn from an earlier performance with colds, but on the recording you would not guess whom. Of the men, I was pleased to hear that tenor Francesco Meli had not forgotten how to sing sotto voce in the Ingemisco after his forays into heavier repertoire. His male colleague, Georg Zeppenfeld, is smooth and vocally mellifluous, his repeats of Mors stupebit in the Tuba mirum chilling. In the Recordare the two ladies duet well, with mezzo Veronica Simeoni smooth and sonorous in the Liber scriptus. Soprano Krassimira Stoyanova is outstanding in the concluding Libera me.

Who would have thought a non-believer composed this music, especially in this well sung and uniquely staged performance?

Robert J Farr



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