In a new season-concept, instead of the traditional winter opera production (fall brought Semele and The Love for Three Oranges during the two-week O19 festival; spring will see Madama Butterfly), this year Opera Philadelphia offered two performances of the Verdi Requiem, appropriately in the glorious Academy of Music, because only a month after the January 26, 1857 opening, the first opera presented was Verdi's Il trovatore. The Requiem was last given by the company in 1986, under Lorin Maazel, with Susan Dunn, Ildiko Komlosi, Pavarotti, and Paata Burchuladze – in the 17,000-seat Spectrum sports arena, since razed and replaced. Fifteen current instrumentalists played in that performance, broadcast later on PBS.

Corrado Rovaris conducts Opera Philadelphia forces in Verdi's Requiem
© Dominic M. Mercier

This Requiem was a gift to Music Director Corrado Rovaris for the anniversary of his twenty years with the company, honing the very good orchestra and chorus – with outstanding chorus master Elizabeth Braden since 2004 – into exceptional quality. Despite the complexity of the score and Verdi’s frequent huge demands, among them near-impossible pianissimi from strings and chorus alike and long, slow unison sections for strings both high and low, plus nothing easy for the winds, I trusted this orchestra. Knowing Rovaris’ acute sense of text and his love and affinity for the Requiem, I anticipated excellence. From the very first measures it was there.

Rovaris took the opening even more slowly than it is usually heard, which made it even more otherworldly, the pianissimo cellos beginning and their colleagues following in that astonishing quiet, barely audible, as Verdi intended, yet carrying (helped by the present good state of the Academy’s acoustics), with a smoothness that returned often later, as impressive as the many fortes from every instrument, conveying the emotions of the text as clearly as from the singers. The percussion (both forte and piano) and the trumpets in the next-to-top balcony with the answering orchestral horns in Tuba mirum gave me chills.

The 100-voice chorus could be described similarly, and both groups were also tested (and got top grades) by the conductor’s faster-than-standard tempi in the Dies irae, Sanctus and Libera me, sometimes too speedy for me, but unquestionably thrilling. The totality emphasized the starkly different spiritual and human aspects while weaving them into a sweeping musical and dramatic arc.

When I learned that mezzo Daniela Mack had become ill the day before the Friday performance, I was disappointed not to hear her, but very glad that her truly last-minute replacement would be Jennifer Johnson Cano, whom I had heard just two weeks ago in the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s remarkable series Emerging Voices: Art Song and Social Connection. So I was not surprised by her rich voice, easy upper and lower registers, range and depth of emotion, and in particular, both the power and agility for Liber scriptus and the gentleness for Lux aeterna.

I suspect that whatever throat-bug felled Ms Mack must also have attacked soprano Leah Crocetto, whose voice often sounded strained or harsh and did not always obey what she asked of it. In the exquisite Agnus Dei with Cano and other ensembles, she managed to blend as well as possible. It was in what is the most challenging music for the Requiem soprano, the closing Libera me, that Crocetto’s voice and singing improved, her timbre warmer, with mostly respectable high notes. Adrenalin? Sheer willpower? Whether in spite or because of her difficulties, her interpretation was always intense.

Last spring, Evan LeRoy Johnson was a wonderful Rodolfo for Opera Philadelphia, and while at Curtis Institute, one of two tenors (the other the younger Aaron Crouch) who sang Lensky’s aria superbly, so I looked forward to this performance and he met most of my expectations. His sweet voice flowed easily, with steady long lines and a fine sense for the words, and he was generally comfortable in the more dramatic music, poignant in the Ingemisco. So, with an apparently healthy voice and technique, why did he often replace real piani or pianissimi with off-the-voice singing, or was he, too, coming down with the Mack malady?

Bass In-sung Sim had the right vocal weight for most of the score’s requirements for the lowest voice, so important for particular areas of expression, such as Confutatis and his part in Salva me, in which he was excellent. I would have liked a greater sense of awe in Mors stupebit.