The greatest bass drum part ever written, the thundering Wrath of God, shook War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco Friday night in a thrilling performance of Verdi’s Requiem. Embracing the vivid extremes of Verdi’s great work, conductor Nicola Luisotti marshaled the wonderfully unruly forces of the largest ensemble ever assembled on the venue’s stage.

© Terrence McCarthy
© Terrence McCarthy

Marking both the bicentennial of the composer’s birth and the so-called “Year of Italian Culture in the United States”, the event was a collaboration between the San Francisco Opera and the Teatro di San Carlo of Naples. Luisotti, the music director of both organizations, made it clear that this 300-strong ensemble was his instrument, and he left no doubt that the performance delivered was exactly as he had envisioned.

Most interpretations of the Requiem strive to do two things: restrain the brass in the biggest moments and rebalance the sound of the chorus despite writing that leans heavily on the men’s voices. Luisotti did neither, and the result was as muscular as it was refreshing. In the Dies Irae, the brass, chorus, strings, and of course the bass drum, blasted away without restraint, and miraculously, none obstructed the other. Instead, the audience was overwhelmed with a sensory explosion that – rattling our bellies and our ear drums – embodied Verdi’s depiction of fire and brimstone.

Flowing from moments of intensity to tranquility, Luisotti often seemed to be playing along with the orchestra rather than guiding it. His cues were too perfectly in sync with the performance to be cues at all. Rather, the ensemble was so well rehearsed, the conductor’s intent so well communicated, and the music itself so well understood that an overt display of leadership would have been a distraction. Instead, he was a part of the music, only stepping out of it when guidance was absolutely necessary, always providing an ideal palette for the quartet of soloists.

All four sang with full, beautiful tone. Bass Vitalij Kowaljow managed to project with lyricism at even the low end of his range. His even tone, unladen with excessive vibrato, was perfect in passages that demanded gravity; although at other times it lacked some emotional depth. Similarly, mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa was powerful and resonant, but she sometimes failed to deliver the tenderness the music demanded.

While Mezzacappa and Kowaljow both delivered fine performances, soprano Leah Crocetto and tenor Michael Fabiano were almost perfect. Both sang as if the music and text were truly important to them. Crocetto’s greatest moment came near the end of the Libera Me, where her tearful plea for deliverance felt absolutely honest. And Fabiano, in the Offertorio, sang in a devastating whisper that seemed to tremble and strain while projecting perfectly throughout the hall.

What added the final touch of magic, though, was the sheer joy with which the musicians played. The two orchestras were happy to share the stage with each other, and it showed. As they occasionally glanced and smiled at each other mid-performance, they seemed to be affirming each other's intuition that something special was happening.

And when audience inevitably leapt to its feet and cheered, the musicians were not afraid to show their elation. At least one chorus member, pulling out his camera, snapped a shot of the effusive crowd. The applause continued until well after the house lights were raised, and it was obvious the audience wanted more. But Luisotti and company can be easily forgiven for not indulging, for they had given us everything they had.

It is difficult to avoid comparing this performance to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s internationally broadcast concert just a few weeks ago. Theirs was a gorgeously produced and nearly flawless affair. When one imagines what this piece should sound like, it is invariably just like what the CSO delivered. In San Francisco, there was no such perfection. The performance had its rough edges, such as a somewhat rushed end to the Lacrimosa followed by some awkward repositioning of performers onstage. For the first ten minutes of the performance, someone seemed to be playing with the light switch in the hall, as the lights kept turning on and off. There was also a distracting moment when the offstage trumpets struggled with intonation during the Tuba Mirum.

But these are insignificant gripes with an otherwise inspired display of emotional and technical mastery. Friday’s performance was not the sort of idealized Requiem the CSO crafted. It was more than that: it was an affirmation of life through an exploration of death and the sacred.

In a light-hearted remark during a speech before the concert, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee joked that this would be the “greatest performance ever” of the Requiem. The greatest ever? Well, maybe not, but he wasn’t too far off the mark.

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