When death takes away everyone you ever loved, acting cool and staying amiable might not be the easiest things to do. You start having thoughts you never dared think before. You start questioning the unquestionable. Chances are you will turn into an agnostic. Giuseppe Verdi did. By age 60 he lost them all: his children, his wife, his friends… And now Manzoni, the greatest of Italian minds, whom he admired too much to dare speak in his presence, was gone too. Manzoni’s death was the last drop. Verdi had too many questions – and wanted them answered. He had too many unsaid words – and wanted to speak. He felt the urge to go to Manzoni’s grave.

The Washington Chorus © Scott Suchman
The Washington Chorus
© Scott Suchman

Even though all requiems seemingly resemble one another in format, every single one is unique and different. The difference lies in the message to God that the composer places “between the lines” of his funeral mass and the story that he wishes to tell. The success of a requiem performance mainly depends on the conductor’s ability (and desire) to grasp that message and develop that story. Thus, a well-performed requiem is a perfect duet of the composer and the conductor.

It came as no surprise that Thursday night the Meyerhoff Symphony audience was brimming with excitement and anticipation. Maestra Alsop taking the podium to lead the BSO, the Washington Chorus and the four soloists in the performance of Verdi’s Requiem promised to be quite a show. A dynamic conductor with a bold artistic vision, Alsop has got what Verdi’s music calls for: energy, passion and of course, the guts.

The key figure of the concert, Alsop did not allow it to be all about her. Having focused mainly on Verdi’s music, she made the composer’s message the whole purpose of the performance, allowing the artists to show off their talents in full grandeur and tell the story composed by a man who believed in the might of human race.

What we saw did not resemble weak sinful souls, begging for redemption; rather, powerful rebels rising from the ashes to stand up to God and question him. From the first barely audible whispers of Requiem and Kyrie to exalted choral shouts in Dies irae, from impeccable canon singing in Sanctus to the most vivid word painting in Confutatis maledictis, this was the Requiem worthy of its creator. The images painted by the choir and the orchestra reached their apogee in the Requiem’s finale “Libera me”, sung by the most impressive voice of the night, soprano Angela Meade. Filled with sheer lyricism as well as dramatic darkness, so typical for Verdi’s heroines, it was her voice that expressed the composer’s message: "You have to save me God, for I am the whole purpose of your existence. Without me, there is no you!" This bold eye opening performance made each audience member part of Verdi’s music, part of the glorious composer/conductor duet, part of the world where Man is strong.

As Verdi was standing at the grave of the great Manzoni, the sound of a church bell distracted him from his grief. Just steps away a joyful wedding procession was coming out of the church. For some life was all about the past and pain, for others – all about the future and joy. Life went on! Verdi felt the urge to work. He had all the right words and knew exactly how to say them. On his way home he drafted the plan for the Manzoni Requiem, his personal hymn to the almighty and unconquerable human spirit.