A performance of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem by a major orchestra always feels like a festive occasion. As the audience filled the main hall at De Doelen, home ground of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the air hummed with expectancy. One-and-a-half hours later, the audience euphorically celebrated the local orchestra and its principal conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Expectations had been more than fulfilled.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Marco Borggreve
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Marco Borggreve

Dedicated to Italian literary titan Alessandro Manzoni, Verdi’s setting of the Catholic Mass for the Dead premièred in 1874 on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death. Applause was prohibited at the Church of Saint Mark in Milan, but the Requiem was an instant success. When Verdi conducted it at La Scala three days later, one reporter wrote that the audience went “insane” at the end of the performance and straitjackets were sent over from a psychiatric hospital as a security measure. Its stupendous music continues to galvanise audiences to this day.

The agnostic Verdi tosses the liturgical text onto a storm of doubt and indignation, but his Requiem is firmly rooted in the Catholic tradition. Searing visions of eternal damnation alternate with heartfelt, penitent imploration. Yannick Nézet-Séguin strongly underlined the two extremes, extracting gorgeous lyricism in the quieter passages from the orchestra and the outstanding Collegium Vocale Gent, and precise, warlike fury in the dramatic sections. The terrifying drum beats of the recurring Dies irae motif sounded like volleys of machine-gun fire, the basses in the chorus rumbled in with Tuba mirum like battle tanks. With deep contrast between ethereal beauty and relentless aggression Nézet-Séguin put his personal stamp on the work. The string tremolos rippled softly in the Hostias, and the Sanctus proffered a glimpse of heaven in the lustrous choral piani. Embodied by these moments of extreme beauty, hope was almost tangible, only for it to be blasted away during the next dramatic onslaught.

Conducting from memory, Nézet-Séguin stood a couple of feet away from the soloists, and was, as it were, a fifth soloist in the dramaturgical interpretation, mouthing the words with the singers. With graceful hands he shaped both vocal and instrumental phrasing, eloquently using rests and pauses to underline the searching nature of the text. He was in complete control of the orchestra, who responded with fluid melodic lines in the strings and winds and jabbing staccati, and of the chorus, who produced a warm sound and airtight legato across all registers.

The four soloists all gave nuanced, text-informed performances. Camilla Nylund’s dramatic soprano sailed over the massive orchestration, but she could also float luminous soft notes, the most stunning being the sustained E in the Domine Jesu Christe. Her voice blended beautifully with Karen Cargill’s opulent mezzo-soprano in the Recordare, the two voices being of similar weight, with a metal glint at the top. As the performance progressed, their singing increased in loveliness and security of tone. Tenor Bryan Hymel’s technically seamless Ingemisco was one of the evening’s high points. His bright, Italianate sound and dynamic suppleness are ideal for Verdi and he was greatly moving in this shame-filled entreaty. Taking a pause from recruiting souls as Méphistophélès in DNO’s Faust, bass Mikhail Petrenko completed the quartet of excellent soloists. Petrenko’s velvety voice is especially beautiful in the upper range. More compassionate sage than thundering preacher, he was mournfully expressive in the Confutatis and, together with Cargill and Hymel, sang a subtly coloured Lux aeterna, the subdued trio before the final section, the soprano’s anguished Libera me.

Verdi chose not to score In paradisum, the last chorus in the liturgy, which accompanies the body out of the church with hopeful images of salvation. Nylund’s Libera me was a masterfully constructed ascent of terror, the fear in her voice increasing after each battering Dies irae. Here Nézet-Séguin made full use of tensile pauses; it was as if Nylund stopped to listen for an answer after each of her pleas. As her supplicant cries turned to dying murmurs, the only answer came from the chorus echoing her words. And then, inescapably, total silence.