Opera Australia’s three most recent offerings have been linked by more than the absence of staging. In the two late 19th-century operas, Thais and Parsifal, both performed in concert settings, a religious way of life is pitted against a world of sensual temptations (a plot schema used with satirical undertones by Massenet, and with deadly seriousness by Wagner). Third to be performed, but earliest in order of composition by a few years, Verdi’s Requiem (1874) may not be an opera proper but it, too, is structured by a similar set of contrasts. In this case, the drama plays out on in an eschatological realm as the clash between secure faith and salvation on the one hand, and the terrifying prospect of judgment and damnation on the other. Last night’s performance rendered this with unusual vividness, reminding us why observers such as Hans von Bülow have regarded it as an “opera in church clothing”.

© Renato Palumbo
© Renato Palumbo

One would have understood it had the Requiem been a little flat after the company’s heroics the previous night, when the first performance of Parsifal finished 30 minutes shy of midnight. Gratifyingly, both chorus and orchestra were thoroughly on form right from the off: the thinnest wisp of sound from the strings at the start was answered by whispered calls of “Requiem”, everything magically at the very limits of audibility. At the other end of the dynamic spectrum was the popular Dies irae, here given a thrilling reading in which the bass drum off-beats were felt as palpable body blows.

Throughout the performance, both groups contributed signally to the vivid storytelling, thanks to the careful pacing and broad range of tones elicited by conductor Renato Palumbo. His was an animated but not obtrusive presence on the podium, marshalling the large forces with aplomb. His control and (the musicians’ and singers’ responsiveness) were exemplified in the breathtaking sudden quiet oases in the otherwise rumbustious final Libera me fugue. One was prepared to forgive the odd imperfection such as the momentary misalignment of the off-stage trumpets in the lead-up to the Tuba mirum.

The soloists were entirely different to those who had sung their hearts out in Wagner's final opera the previous evening. Soprano Serena Farnocchia had a clear penetrating delivery, and captured much of the desperation of the recitative-like Libera me solos. Her final top B flat was beautifully secure, although perhaps in an ideal world it could have been more gently floated, given the ‘still more softly’ instructions on the score here. Milijana Nikolic, a popular favourite in the company, was having an off night vocally. Her tone sounded woolly, especially in the naked opening to the Agnus Dei (where she was shadowing the more laser-like Farnocchia an octave lower), and there were frequent audibility problems, not all of which could be ascribed to my seat on the opposite side of the stalls.

Another ‘local’, Mexican tenor Diego Torre, delivered the expected Italianate tenor bel canto sound with all the associated mannerisms (such as leaning into notes from below). His Ingemisco was a lyrical pleasure, with a rich top B flat near the finish the icing on the cake. The second of the two Italian visitors, bass Roberto Scandiuzzi, was utterly at home with the part, as evinced by his refusal to follow convention by using a score while singing. His grave mien and stentorian delivery in the Confutatis put one in mind of stern Verdian bass roles such Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, and he got the proper sepulchral vibe into his repeated invocations of “Mors” (death) in the Tuba mirum.

Over the years I have noticed how difficult it seems to be for trained operatic soloists to nail four-part a cappella (unaccompanied) passages; deprived of orchestral support, and with four sets of vibrato usually going full blast, the pitch frequently suffers, at times drastically. There were two egregious instances of this in the Requiem – the Pie Jesu passage at the end of the Lacrymosa (one of sections which could with minimal alteration fit into a middle-period Verdi opera), where things got vague; and the trio passage concluding the Lux aeterna, where they went off the rails entirely and order was only restored with the re-entry of the orchestra. Lesser singers can bring these off with aplomb, so it’s curious why the cream of the crop should struggle so. But these were very minor purgatorial moments in a performance which was far more celestial than damnable.