Hans von Bülow taunted that Verdi’s Requiem was just another of his operas “in ecclesiastical garb’”. It’s difficult to disagree. The bass skulking around threatening damnation could be Ramfis or the Grand Inquisitor; the mezzo could easily be Amneris, imperiously demanding Judgement Day; and our soprano, desperately pleading for deliverance, could be Elisabetta di Valois, tortured by events at the end of Don Carlos. Antonio Pappano, leading his Roman forces of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, offered a suitably operatic treatment, full of blood and thunder.

Sir Antonio Pappano © Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI Classics
Sir Antonio Pappano
© Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI Classics

Allusions to Aida and Don Carlos in the Requiem are apt. The soprano, mezzo and bass at the 1874 première (Teresa Stolz, Maria Waldmann and Ormondo Maini) had sung the roles of Aida, Amneris and Ramfis at the European première of Aida two years earlier. The Don Carlos comparisons focus on the Lacrymosa section of the Requiem, which grew directly from a discarded scene for Philip and Carlos during the Insurrection scene after the Marquis of Posa’s death. Only the tenor part in the Requiem lies some distance away from contemporary operatic roles Verdi had created, full of lyric simplicity and sincerity. That Verdi could produce such an intense, personal response to the Requiem text is not surprising. His Requiem is a work about death and the pain and fear it holds, something the agnostic Verdi knew about more than most with the loss of his first wife and two infant children while only in his twenties.

Carlo Colombara was the pick of the soloists. His is not the most imposing bass voice in the world, but it was rock-steady and plumb in tune. He varied his tone in the Confutatis maledictis section, scaling his voice down to a priestly whisper. Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, a late replacement for the indisposed Ekaterina Semenchuk, possesses a fearsome chest register which enabled her to dispatch the Liber scriptus superbly. Hers is quite an old-fashioned mezzo approach, low on subtlety, but I rather enjoyed it.

Joseph Calleja displayed his trademark golden tone and tight vibrato, although I have heard him in better voice; he nearly came to grief in the top B flats in the Ingemisco, but the Hostias was delivered with touching sincerity. Hibla Gerzmava struck me as on the light, lirico-spinto side – you couldn’t envisage her taking on the role of Aida any time soon – and she underplayed the drama of the Libera me. She could float her top notes effectively, however, and she blended well with Brunet-Grupposo in the Agnus Dei.

Hibla Gerzmava © P Vaan & L Semenyuk
Hibla Gerzmava
© P Vaan & L Semenyuk

The biggest impact in this performance came not from the soloists, but from the brilliant Coro di Santa Cecilia, which received a huge ovation at the end. Pappano encouraged his chorus to be almost inaudible at the start, while in the Dies irae, it hissed Quantus tremor est futurus with sibilant violence. Its contributions to the Rex tremendae were gloriously loud, while the double chorus of the Sanctus thrilled at a lively tempo. The operatic nature of this chorus even extended to its listing in the programme – not soprano, alto, tenor, bass, but soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass.

The orchestra was no less vital. If you frequent the side stalls circle at Covent Garden, you’ll be aware of the intensely physical eruption which is Pappano’s conducting style. Here, he was no less animated, marshalling his troops into battle, and lulling them to eternal rest with exaggerated movements. Tempi were often fast and frenetic. Pappano whipped up the necessary fire and brimstone for the Dies irae with fierce energy. And how wonderful to be in an acoustic in which the timpani and bass drum avoid turning to aural mush (and what dramatic flair the timpanist displayed)! The off-stage brass for the Tuba mirum was placed up in the Balcony and, despite pressing ahead ever so slightly, contributed well to a terrifying vision of Judgement Day. At the other end of the dynamic spectrum, Pappano drew out the lovely trio of flutes which accompanies the Agnus Dei quite beautifully.

Despite flaws, the passion and Italian fire on display in this performance was infectious, centred on a conductor who really can draw the best from his forces. An operatic Requiem? Certainly.

****1