Any opportunity to see the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House excavated from its pit is to be welcomed, and a memorable performance of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem saw them perform in unison with the excellent Royal Opera Chorus, which continues to bloom under its director William Spaulding. The concert was very much an occasion; although there has been a ‘Royal’ element to the house itself for centuries, it was just fifty years ago that the Royal Opera was given its Royal Charter. More solemnly, Sir Antonio Pappano used the performance as the Royal Opera House’s contribution to the centenary of the end of World War One, and also took the opportunity to commemorate the recent death of the much-loved Montserrat Caballé.

Sir Antonio Pappano © ROH | David Bebber
Sir Antonio Pappano
© ROH | David Bebber

We were given a strong set of soloists for the performance; of the quartet, soprano Lise Davidsen stepped straight out of the current ROH Ring Cycle to replace, at short notice, the indisposed Krassimira Stoyanova. Davidsen was a luxury replacement: there’s something very special about her voice, which is reminiscent of an ember in its warm and pervasive glow. It’s a large instrument which carried comfortably through the sound around her, but extremely mellow and her singing was entirely unforced. A little more feeling of singing off the text would at times have elevated her performance, but one left with a sense that there will be some extraordinary performances from her in years to come.

Benjamin Bernheim’s tenor gave real force to the quartet; gleaming and incisive, his voice is the vocal equivalent of a knockout punch, with an energy to it that brought dynamism to the performance. Of the four, his attention to text and the feeling that was infused with what he was singing stood out, particularly in the vibrant delivery of the Kyrie. He exhibited a strong high register and the confidence to deploy it effectively.

Gábor Bretz provided a smooth, chocolatey underlay with his distinct bass. Phrasing was elegant and he showed a full uncompromising lower register that melded serenely against the orchestra, and providing operatic intensity to the Confutatis. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton completed the quartet, wielding a cavernous lower register that offered a rewarding contrast against Davidsen’s bright top. That said, Barton’s singing seemed less engaged than expected and I didn’t feel that there was something behind the pure mechanics of her performance that gave it meaning.

A performance of Verdi's Requiem depends, rightly or wrongly, on the reading of the Dies irae. Pappano and his forces gave the strongest reading that I have heard ‘live’, a veritable maelstrom with the bass drum violence at its heart. The chorus blazed throughout; once or twice there seemed to be some disparity between sections that slightly smudged the overall cohesion, but as a mass they gave an extremely good performance, especially in the Sanctus. Exciting playing too from the orchestra, who from the opening with the sensitive solo cello gave a subtle and dynamic performance. Full credit to the brass section whose intensity reinforced the power of the Dies irae. Perhaps what stood out most was the silence at the end; held back by Pappano, the audience was most responsive in its quietude. A very apt way to end this splendid performance.