The Cleveland Orchestra closed its 2011/12 season on Thursday and Saturday, May 31 and June 2, with stirring performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, with the orchestra’s Director of Choruses Robert Porco conducting the orchestra, the precisely-trained Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, and an unusually well-matched quartet of soloists. Two of the soloists, Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska and American tenor Dimitri Pittas, were making their Cleveland Orchestra debuts, with mezzo Michelle DeYoung and bass Raymond Aceto rounding out the group.

Liudmyla Monastyrska
Liudmyla Monastyrska

From the quiet choral opening of Verdi’s 1873/74 setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, it is clear that this is something different from other settings, especially those popular ones by French composers Fauré and Duruflé. Verdi uses the Requiem text to his own artistic ends, creating a “libretto” extracted, rearranged within the individual sections, and freely repeated. It is a full-blooded narrative on the themes of death, the fear and terror of the Last Judgment, and the hope of redemption. The gates of Hell are never very far away. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus’ opening Requiem aeternam was hushed in anticipation. The chorus’ very clear diction continued throughout the performance. They were highly attuned to Verdi’s sudden dynamic shifts, and the complicated counterpoint of the brilliant fugue in the Sanctus was transparent.

Any performance of Verdi’s Requiem succeeds or fails on its soloists, who have more music than does the chorus. Although each of these four singers was a fully capable soloist, as a quartet and in the various duets and trios their voices blended seamlessly. Indeed, when Ms. Monastyrska and Ms. DeYoung began the lamenting Recordare, it was difficult to distinguish between them. Ms. Monastyrska has an unusually rich lower register, and Ms. DeYoung has a brilliant upper register. Ms. DeYoung, who is acclaimed for her performances of Wagner, Mahler and Berlioz, is not so known for Verdi, but seemed ideal in this work. Her performance of the Liber scriptus solo was alternately tender and dramatic.

Ms. Monastyrska was the find of the evening, and seems destined for a prominent career, especially in the Italian operatic repertoire. She has the power to be heard over the full orchestra, but with the control to manage Verdi’s floated high notes. Unlike the chorus and the other soloists, her Latin diction was often muddy, but the flow of beautiful singing compensated.

Verdi gave the two male soloists comparatively less to sing than the two women, but Dimitri Pittas and Raymond Aceto made the most of their contributions. Mr. Pittas upheld Verdi’s instruction that “This Mass is not to be sung in the way one sings an opera” by not adopting the throbbing Italian tenor style. His performance of the Lux aeterna (with Ms. DeYoung and Mr. Aceto) was one of the highlights of the evening. Mr. Aceto held the capacity audience in rapt attention during his brief Mors stupebit et natura solo. His aria with chorus coda Confutatis maledictis was riveting. Mr. Aceto made us think that this was one of Verdi’s operatic fathers pleading for the life of his daughter. Alas, the orchestra and chorus cut him off in a blast of the Day of Wrath with a return of the earlier Dies irae music. Mr. Aceto does not have a huge, booming bass voice; it is a lyric instrument used with care and taste, but with the low notes required. One had the sense throughout that these soloists were all listening to one another.

The Cleveland Orchestra played with its usual trademark transparency and cohesion. The off-stage trumpets in the Tuba mirum passage of the Dies irae section were placed in boxes left and right overlooking the Severance Hall stage.

Robert Porco and his assembled forces received a long, cheering ovation at the end of the concert, although at least one audience member couldn’t wait and interrupted Mr. Porco’s attempt to close the work in a moment of reflective silence as the final chord faded away.

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