Parma’s most famous musical son is Arturo Toscanini, the conductor whose fiery temperament was legendary. In his recording of Verdi’s Requiem you can hear him screaming “più forte!” at the NBC Symphony’s brass during the Tuba mirum. There were moments during last night’s excellent Verdi Festival performance under Michele Mariotti where he’d probably have shouted the same, for this was essentially a beautiful, reverential reading at the expense of visceral power and dread. 

Verdi's Requiem in the Teatro Regio di Parma
© Roberto Ricci

The last Requiem I heard opened the BBC Proms season back in July and it was interesting to reflect on two very different performances in two very different venues. The cavernous Royal Albert Hall favoured those huge brassy and choral moments, whereas the 1400-seater Teatro Regio unsurprisingly allowed the more intimate expressions to come to the fore. 

From near the front of the stalls, the layout also favoured the orchestra over the chorus. Noisy air conditioning all but drowned out the Coro del Teatro Regio di Parma’s hushed Requiem aeternam at the very start, but they later sang the Dies irae with vigour – and great sibilance – and the Sanctus with discipline. After their controversial exclusion from the festival’s opening production, they and chorus master Martino Faggiani were greeted with loud acclaim at the end. 

Marina Rebeka, Varduhi Abrahamyan, Stefan Pop and Riccardo Zanellato
© Roberto Ricci

The four soloists were very fine. Riccardo Zanellato’s noble bass was beautiful in the Confutatis maledictis solo and his repeated utterances of “Mors” at the end of Mors stupebit sounded truly horrified. Stefan Pop was highly engaged, with lots of eye contact with Mariotti, sometimes mouthing the words of the chorus behind him. He sang with warm, expressive tone in the Ingemisco and employed a honeyed head voice for a magical opening to the Hostias section of the Offertorio. Marina Rebeka and Varduhi Abrahamyan made for an interesting soprano-mezzo pairing; their vocal qualities are very different – Rebeka’s soprano is steely blue, Abrahamyan’s mezzo softer and smokier – but they complemented each other rather well, especially in the Agnus Dei. Abrahamyan’s top notes were imperiously Amneris-like and her singing was dramatic, with crunching consonants that bit. Rebeka often looked nervous, score-bound and glancing for cues, but she sang better than I’ve ever heard her, with superb control, and excellent top notes that had diamond-hard precision. By the end of the Libera me, she looked properly drained, a finely wrought rendition. 

Michele Mariotti
© Roberto Ricci

But this was Mariotti’s evening – along with the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI. There were so many orchestral touches at which to marvel: the strings’ furious crescendo in the two bars linking the Ingemisco to the Confutatis maledictis; stabbing violins in the Lacrimosa; double bass pizzicatos tolling like funeral bells in the Lux aeterna; bassoons intoning like monks in the Libera me. Balance favoured the skittish string fugue in the Sanctus rather more than the chorus, a quite incredible bit of string writing though so good to hear all its devilish detail. Mariotti placed his “off-stage” brass in boxes at either side of the stage, polished rather than loud, but the bass drums – plural here – were thumped with relish in the Dies irae by a single player with two beaters. I suspect Toscanini would have approved.

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