A place of worship was the stage; stained glass windows cast light on a choir that massed over a hundred and sixty members, and the Truro Symphony Orchestra, led by Martin Palmer and heralded by soprano Claire Seaton, mezzo Susanna Spicer, tenor Anthony Mee, and bass Edward Price wrought tragedy and triumph out of a magnificent performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Messa da Requiem at Truro Cathedral. Aside from a few tuning indiscrepancies which thankfully failed to drain away from the overall rapture of the evening, it has forged its place as one of the best concerts of the year in the region.

Truro Choral Society and Symphony Orchestra
Truro Choral Society and Symphony Orchestra

Palmer led an ensemble which displayed a strong attentiveness to the work, and exhibited good control over the acoustic challenges that the venue typically serves up to modern orchestras. Knowing when to diminish into a whispering pianissimo or unleash the reins of a fortissimo which threatened to shatter the pillars of the church, both vocalists and instrumentalists were lyrically and dynamically intuitive, and true to the composer's flair for high theatricality.

Any fan of Verdi would have felt an inner surge when the haunting strains of the lower strings drew in the beginning of the Requiem aeternam. Immediately enticing, it took no time weaving a visual narrative that left the listener in suspense, and the choir's segue provided a lush harmonic layer that departed beautifully into a section without instrumentalists. Peacefully sorrowful and sometimes hopeful, the choristers and musicians performed each segment as its own unique entity, but without any jarring transitions. It read like an opera overture, vast in its scope and almost light-hearted in its conviction. It wasn't until the Dies irae, when the full cavalcade of Death plummeted into battle with a thunderous brass and percussion section against choir and orchestra, that one finally grasped the extent of Verdi's anguish and his intoxication with the supernatural. Here was the answer to the foreboding motif in the strings at the beginning, and it was just as frightening. “Verdi's latest opera, in ecclesiastic dress,” declared pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, a contemporary of the Italian maestro. Aptly put, for the musical narrative commanded a theatre to accompany it, though it lacked nothing without one. The longest movement in the mass, it was easily the most expansive, ranging from chaotic to triumphant and then at last, in the mystical Lacrimosa, breathtaking as if caught up in sheer wonder at the world.

Equally aware of the piece's operatic nature, mezzo-soprano Spicer was expressive in her contemplations of Judgement, as was Price, her bass counterpart. Yet arguably the most dramatic sequences were given to Seaton and Mee, whose range and depth were slightly stronger than their colleagues, though perhaps one might owe that to Verdi's obsession with soprano and tenor ranges, and his belief in their capacity to convey an elevated sense of spirituality. Seaton's full and pure timbre was seamless; at times, her power scaled the breadth of the cathedral from floor to rafter with the full ensemble at her heels; at other times, her solo note in the high register at piano volume held itself with angelic quality in the Offertory. Mee, whose career on the operatic circuit is impressively prolific, demonstrated his craft with passion and a full-bodied tone which was unparalleled – the task which Verdi had set out for him was fulfilled beautifully.

Other characters would play an important part in the mass, as well – the eerily arpeggiating bassoon, which would hang around the more menacing section of the Dies irae like a spectre; the gloriously uplifting horn complementing the tenor, and answered by the oboe in the later sections of the work; the tranquil flute solo that offered something consolatory in the Agnus Dei. Had the trumpets harnessed the vibrancy of their sound a little more tactfully and not exposed their fragile harmonics to the mercy of the acoustics, and the upper strings approached their tuning with more concentration, the performance would have been almost perfect. But these were fleeting moments, and the musicians adapted quickly – a feat that can be taxing under pressure.

There was a sense, at the ending, of reconciliation, of an ending journey. After descents into doom, funeral marches, victorious resurrections, unravelling fugues and meditative prayers, it was a pianissimo that laid the piece to rest in the Libera me. Verdi paid tribute and immortalised the memory of his hero, the Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni, to whom the work was dedicated – and perhaps it was the notion of epic verse, with its various trials and celebrations, which inspired the soundscape as much as the opera world itself.

****1