Is Verdi’s Requiem a sacred work or an opera in disguise? Every performance strikes a different balance between the two musical elements and the results can be fascinating. The first performance of the Requiem was in 1874, but the piece had been in the works for several years before that; on the death of Rossini in 1868, Verdi had proposed a collaborative Requiem with leading Italian composers of the day and offered the Libera me as his section. Rossini’s direct contribution to Italian opera needs no comment, but during his time in Paris, he had offered constant support and encouragement to the next generation of musicians; there’s amusing account about one of his famous Saturday soirées at which a young, rather sullen and uncomfortable Verdi was encouraged to socialise and perform.

The collaborative Requiem never saw fruition, but Verdi was prompted by the death of the novelist Alessandro Manzoni to take the seed of his Libera me and expand it into the Requiem. Marin Alsop has become a Proms favourite, particularly since her first time conducting the Last Night in 2013, and there was plenty of anticipation to hear her interpretation with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Michael Fabiano, the scheduled tenor, withdrew due to illness and Dimitri Pittas stepped in at the last minute. I was not entirely convinced that Pittas was ideally suited to the demands of the piece; his voice, mellow in the middle, seemed badly strained at the top, and though he warmed up, singing with ardent phrasing in the Quid sum miser, that slight sense of unease never entirely left. Most impressive was the soprano Tamara Wilson, who gave a consistently strong performance with an impressively advanced and multi-faceted instrument. Her voice was entirely unforced, but she showed well-honed projection, rarely inaudible through the combined forces of orchestra and choruses. Her soprano gleamed, glorious in the Libera me where it floated ethereally in pristine pianissimo and with an unwavering higher register. Phrasing was generous, tone alternating between religious purity and operatic splendour. Hers was a performance that will not quickly be forgotten.

Wilson was well paired with Alisa Kolosova, whose mezzo was generous and full of warmth. She made an immediate impression in the Kyrie, voice carrying well and with clear articulation. Her Recordare with Wilson was particularly enjoyable where both voices worked well together and Kolosova’s smoky lower register wafted under Wilson’s high notes in easy harmony. With an almost unreligiously bonhomous stage presence our bass, Morris Robinson, was a bit of a stage-stealer, even in the bows drawing attention with a broad, cheeky grin, but vocally, there was plenty of subtlety that made the Mors stupebit nuanced: both astonished and threatening. His varnished oak voice rolled pleasing in the lower register, but there were moments, particularly when the whole quartet was singing, when his voice seemed underpowered.

Alsop wove an interesting path between the operatic and the sacred; the Kyrie was sung by the choir in those hallowed, devotional tones that represent the best of religious singing, but then the last few moments of the Dies irae with its threatened whisperings was done with all the frantic nervous energy of an early Verdi opera. Alsop’s easy fluctuation from one extreme to the other captured well the spirit of the unusual composition, and her pacing and emphases all showed an inclination to bring out the religious while conducting the work to operatic standards. She drew an admirable response from the BBC Proms Youth Choir, who sang with pleasing clarity, and delivered the opening without score which had a tangible impact. Freshness and even tone made them a vibrant force, and they impressed in the work-defining Dies irae, the test of any chorus.

Though I wasn’t particularly struck by their period instruments which unlocked no great secret to the work, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was generally good – the brass in the Tuba mirum, with added reinforcements stationed in the Gallery, was breath-taking, and I was impressed by the woodwind in the Quid sum miser, underlying and supporting the three soloists while shining in their own right. A touch more guidance from Alsop would have been helpful in the tutti moments, to embolden if not to guide.

Still, it was an ideal way to end the ‘serious music’ before the fun of the Last Night – three of the soloists were new to the Proms, a top rate conductor from across the water was running proceedings and the choir got a chance to show off bags of young talent. Roll on next year!