As part of its miniature Verdi festival this July, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra presented the Italian composer’s Messa da Requiem, in collaboration with the New Zealand Opera Chorus and members of Voices New Zealand and the Graduate Choir NZ and an international quartet of soloists. Composed in memory of Verdi’s beloved poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, Verdi’s is possibly the most well-known Requiem Mass (alongside perhaps Mozart’s). At the time of its premiere, some felt the music too operatic and not in keeping with the solemnity of the mass text, with conductor Hans von Bülow referring to it as “an opera in ecclesiastical garb”. Despite some reservations, Music Director Giordano Bellincampi’s interpretation was certainly excitingly theatrical, benefitting greatly from a mostly stunning line-up of solo singers.

Erika Grimaldi, Olesya Petrova, Gustavo Porta, Petri Lindroos and chorus
© Adrian Malloch

After an exquisitely hushed opening, the tenor entrance in the Kyrie was a bit of a shock, as Gustavo Porta seemed immediately to be in some kind of vocal distress, scooping up to notes and flattening in pitch as he crested his very first phrase. Porta’s Ingemisco solo was hit-and-miss too, some attractive phrases alternating with those that sagged in pitch. However, he improved noticeably for a respectable shaping of the lovely Hostias melody in sweet half-voice. By contrast, the other three soloists, were all superb from their first entrances, sporting the kind of large-scale Verdi voices needed to fill out this music over orchestra and chorus. Probably most impressive was Olesya Petrova, a truly Verdian mezzo voice, rounded and warm and with utmost steadiness of tone. She brought an appropriate solemnity to the Liber scriptus, but with the ability to dig down into a formidable chest register as well as produce ringing high notes that filled the hall with their amplitude. This was truly great singing that creates high expectations for her Azucena in the orchestra’s upcoming Il trovatore in concert.

Petrova also contributed to the sublimely beautiful blend between soprano and mezzo in the Recordare and in the unaccompanied sections of the Agnus Dei, alongside soprano Erika Grimaldi. The latter possesses a lovely lyric soprano with a hint of spinto ping as the voice goes higher above the stave. She can soar over the orchestra but could also fine down in tone to a beautifully floated pianissimo, as in her heavenly entries in the Offertorio. While some of the lower-lying passages were clearly a challenge, she was riveting in expression in the Libera me, actually sounding the part of terrified supplicant. Finnish bass Petri Lindroos was rock-solid at the bottom of the quartet, expertly pitching the difficult Mors stupedit. He made a thunderous sound in the Confutatis and brought a real sense of gravity to his contributions in the Offertorio.

Giordano Bellincampi conducts the APO, NZ Opera Chorus, Voices New Zealand and The Graduate Choir NZ
© Adrian Malloch

Bellincampi's speeds weren’t either overly slow nor fast, but there was more emphasis on the operatic drama than the spiritual side of the piece. This means that the Tuba mirum, for example, was spine-tingling and impressively grand in scale. Each repetition of the Dies irae was given a slightly different colour; an inspiringly detailed interpretation. Bellincampi’s direction did, however, suffer from what was perhaps an excess of affection for the piece and a need to shape every single moment. He was free with the rubato within movements, sometimes to positive expressive effect but other times a bit disorienting or mannered in its sudden changes of tempo, accelerandi and other effects. Unfortunately, this also led to some imprecise coordination between orchestra and singers, and indeed also with the chorus in some of the more contrapuntally complicated movements. 

The collective choirs were more effective in the more extrovert moments, producing quite a volume of sound and a fair measure of terror for the Dies irae. While the opening Requiem aeternam was quite lovely, some definition was lost in central movements of the work. And when the music became more complicated in texture, accuracy was not fully maintained. The difficult Sanctus double fugue was not ideally clear in its counterpoint and the choral sections were not always completely in time with one another and Bellincampi. Overall, the orchestra provided its usual sterling contribution, with some memorable wind solos and the additional trumpets positioned in the circle behind the audience creating a stunning surround-sound effect. All in all, while not without its pitfalls, this was a worthy contribution to the orchestra’s Verdi festival and bodes well for the upcoming Trovatore with the same soloists and ensemble.