Ultimately, it must all occur at the microscopic level. Perhaps electrons start spinning in the other direction. Maybe cells change the speed at which they divide. Possibly neurons transmit information differently. It all happens without us being aware, let alone being able to control any of these processes, but we do get to experience the outcome. And whatever happened at the atomic level, the audience who left the Teatro Real after hearing Verdi’s Messa da Requiem were not the same people who had entered the hall ninety minutes earlier. Internally, it all unravelled intensely, uncontrollably, in the same way that life ends. Hearing Verdi’s Requiem was terrifying.

Riccardo Muti © Javier del Real / Teatro Real
Riccardo Muti
© Javier del Real / Teatro Real

The concert was programmed to mark the fourth centenary of the death of Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614). The Teatro Real performance followed a previous one that had taken place at the Toledo cathedral a couple of days before – Toledo was the town where El Greco lived and worked for 36 years, and where he crystallised death on canvas like no other. The Madrid performance did not have such an impressive setting, but it is likely to have offered neater acoustics. In a score that poses the most troubling questions – musically, as much as textually – being able to discern every note truly becomes a fundamental need.

The Oxford Companion to Music amusingly refers to the format of the Requiem Mass as “basically identical with that of the normal Latin Mass, but with the more joyful parts omitted”. There was certainly no joy to be had. How could there be, when Verdi’s score confronts us with the most unspeakable of human fears, and places a mirror in front of us that reminds us – at least the least religious among us – that there is no salvation, no matter how desperately we try to seek or deserve it? It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the most petrifying settings of a Requiem Mass ever to be composed comes from a man that was himself agnostic.

Tonight, Riccardo Muti was the force of nature he can be. Not a single cough could be heard in the audience, which in itself speaks volumes about the degree of respect there was in the hall. When one mobile phone went off in the middle of the Libera me, the panic in the audience was palpable: nobody wanted to see Muti’s own wrath. The orchestra was literally on the edge of their seats. The choir stood tall. The soloists never lost sight of the baton. Muti lived up to his own legend and showed a knowledge and an understanding of Verdi’s score that defied all belief.

Tatjana Serjan must really have impressed the Italian conductor, as he has chosen her to sing this Requiem by his side around the world, including with his Chicago Symphony Orchestra during the celebrations of the bicentenary of Verdi’s birth last year, which was live streamed. He had good reason to choose her. She managed her voice with so much ease that one could be led to believe her part was an easy one to sing. Her fragile, yet entirely reliable, piano high notes were addictive – and she did not miss a single one. Her voice was also remarkably full in the lower register. Most importantly, her interpretation of the score was one that had much more to do with a dramatic piece than with a concert performance. She wittingly assumed the role of the almost possessed messenger through which we heard of judgement and redemption. Hers was the spotlight in the Libera me that finally put the troubled minds of the audience at rest (or more likely caused nightmares).

Tatjana Serjan, Ekaterina Gubanova, Riccardo Muti, Francesco Meli and Ildar Abdrazakov © Javier del Real / Teatro Real
Tatjana Serjan, Ekaterina Gubanova, Riccardo Muti, Francesco Meli and Ildar Abdrazakov
© Javier del Real / Teatro Real

Serjan’s work with others was not least commendable. Her voice and that of Ekaterina Gubanova proved a rich, balanced mixture. Gubanova offered a Liber scriptus that left no doubt in its warning: nothing shall remain unavenged. In contrast, her opening line in the Lacrymosa showed her voice at its most delicate and also at its most beautiful. Verdi’s Requiem is an exhausting journey for any voice, so it is always a good idea to exercise caution, and Gubanova used her resources wisely. Less successful in this quest was bass Ildar Abdrazakov, who sang with remarkable taste but whose voice showed a bit too much tiredness for someone who should be at the zenith of his career vocally. Like Serjan, he is also favoured by Muti, chosen to perform the Requiem with the Chicago Symphony. While his overall performance, and his Confutatis in particular, were outstanding, if we are to listen to him for years to come, he might want to choose his repertoire carefully. Abdrazakov could have borrowed some of tenor Francesco Meli’s voice, which edged on the strident side at times, especially during the Ingemisco.

Even so, and amazingly – given the very different natures of all four soloists – their voices worked very well together as well as with the choir. The latter, which was put together for the occasion by mixing the Teatro Real choir and the Comunidad de Madrid choir, provided the heavy artillery when requested and remained solemn and murmuring to call for the eternal rest. This was an evening to surrender humbly with all the consequences.

*****