Contrition follows confession and eases into the light of forgiveness; out of damnation comes deliverance. Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, composed in 1874, courses through religious turns with a specific pomp, marked finally with the soprano’s dramatic Libera me a diva’s dream. While Verdi dedicated the work to Alessandro Manzoni, he wrote the soprano part for his rumored lover, Teresa Stolz. Soprano Amber Wagner filled the role for Houston Symphony with a flair that reminds us this Requiem has dramatic roots.

Amber Wagner © IMG Artists
Amber Wagner
© IMG Artists

Led with a nod from principle cellist Brinton Averil Smith, the lower strings began the work solemnly and respectfully. Even conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, usually so light on his feet, was subdued as if to embrace the mournful phrasing. The upper strings joined easily, naturally building toward the choir’s emphatic entrance. This foundation of quiet penitence begs for an angry bite from the choir, but the chorus entered almost unaffectedly. Even at a softer tempo, lyrical cleanness was missing. The orchestra, soft and silken, supported the singing nevertheless.

The four soloists were remarkable singers individually, but the ensemble gave them the slip. Tenor Francesco Demuro, in his Houston Symphony debut, has a classic Verdi voice – thick vibrato matched to a golden timbre – but the three other soloists quickly overpowered him. In projecting to match their volume, Demuro’s voice grew strained, choking rather than soaring. Likewise, the later duets between soprano Amber Wagner and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke missed some basic cohesion, from matching cut-offs to aligning phrasing arcs.

But Cooke is a majestic mezzo-soprano alone. Her voice is surprisingly bright in its lower register, and she caught the playful side of Verdi’s part writing in the back and forth with the orchestra. Even when she wasn’t singing, she added to the performance visually, tilting her head pensively as Wagner voyaged through Libera me. Likewise, in his Houston Symphony debut Alfred Walker sang with deep purpose. His bass-baritone timbre is something you can fall into: cavernous but hospitable, with a hefty vibrato that doesn’t lose its pitch however much it lingers on either side of a note.

Wagner, though, stole the show, as a soprano should. Also making her Houston Symphony debut, she proved an expert with presence. At no point did she seem to be laboring. While Walker’s voice has significant aural depth to fall into, Wagner’s swallows you up in its voluptuous folds. It's big, it's rich, it's romantic with a touch of classical when need be.

I like to imagine that Wagner was channeling Stolz in this role, adding traces of gossip, jealousy and passion to a part otherwise reserved for religiosity. But the operatic nature of Verdi’s Requiem perturbs scholars and critics as a central point of contention. Several parts of the Requiem come from Verdi’s operatic work, either discarded ensembles or repurposed popular themes (think of the Lacrymosa section of the Dies irae, discarded from Don Carlos). The best quote on the subject comes from German musician and composer Hans von Bülow, a contemporary of Verdi’s, who called it an “Oper in Kirchengewande” (opera in church dress).

Truly, when the wrathful Dies irae struck, the orchestra and choir reached a fiery pinnacle that was nothing short of operatic. With the thundering timpani, the sound was dramatic and exhilarating, despite the ensemble’s follies in the quieter sections. But the secret to a good Requiem is isolating and then building the idea of wrath. Anticipation is the key, followed by resolution that is made in the clean lines, the serene pianos, the whispers promising day after day of anger. After all, damnation without purification only ends with ashes.

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