When the Metropolitan Opera announced early this year that a planned new production of Verdi’s La forza del destino was being replaced by four concert performances of his Requiem, many opera fans bemoaned the lost opportunity to experience one of Verdi’s elusive masterpieces. Little did we know that the run of Requiem would become a fitting tribute to Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Russian baritone who excelled in so many Verdi roles and who died two days before the first performance of the Requiem. All four performances have been dedicated to his memory.

Verdi's <i>Requiem</i> at The Met © Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera
Verdi's Requiem at The Met
© Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera

The Requiem may take most of its text from Catholic Mass for the Dead, but the music is dramatic and emotional. Verdi wrote it to honor Alessandro Manzoni, an author who was closely associated with Italy’s unification movement. The lengthy Dies irae and the final Libera me were taken from other religious sources. The words and music are not simple prayers for the dead or appeals to God for eternal peace. They represent mankind’s struggle to comprehend life and death, more questioning of the meaning of suffering, sometimes in anger and frustration. We, the audience, were ready to be taken on a wrenching journey,  seeking catharsis for our sorrow at the premature silence of a glorious voice.

Verdi’s vocal writing for the four soloists is just as unforgiving and demanding as in his operas. Stripped of the staging, props and costumes of an opera, the singers must demonstrate that they can negotiate a wide vocal range whilst imbuing meaning to the text. Serbian baritone Željko Lučić once remarked that a good Verdi singer must possess two essential qualities: vocal color, rich and clean, and fine legato to sustain Verdi’s melodies. Two of the soloists excelled in this regard: soprano Krassimira Stoyanova and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. While their voices sometimes lacked power to ride above the orchestra, both put their extensive experience singing Verdi to good use. Furlanetto injected chilling intensity into his Mors stupidit, and colored each word and phrase with thrilling precision. Stoyanova never put undue force to her voice and was elegant in her phrasing throughout. She rose to the challenge of the Libera me body and soul. She looked anguished before she began her exposed declamation, and ended her plea for salvation with a secure C in delicate pianissimo, sending the note high into the air.

Soloists and Met Opera Chorus © Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera
Soloists and Met Opera Chorus
© Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera

Russian mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk may not be the most nuanced singer but she blessed us with her powerful dark voice. She was able to descend to the low range of the part while still being audible. The two women’s voices blended well, their lines rising and descending in exquisite harmony in the Recordare and Agnus Dei, the vocal highlights of the performance.

Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko’s clarion and, at times, warm voice was a welcome contrast to his three colleagues, and the soloists formed a pleasing ensemble in their solo quartet moments. Mr Antonenko began with his clear voice riding above the orchestra with ease, but seemed to have some intonation issues, and the big tenor solo Ingemisco found him struggling to sustain his lines, especially in high range. He showed us in process just how challenging this solo was, and one hopes he would deliver a more satisfying rendition in the remaining three performances.

James Levine started the piece with a slow quiet hush, drawing exquisite playing from the orchestra; the hushed whisper of the choral singers soon joined. He maintained a plodding and deliberate pace throughout, never unleashing the orchestra, even in the bombastic and pounding Dies irae.

While it was to Mr Levine’s credit to manage the transitions from one section to the next so that pauses were never too long to allow the audience to relax, the whole performance remained placid and lacked despair and joy. The Met Orchestra showed off its gorgeous strings, precise woodwinds, sophisticated brass and powerful percussion, with Mr Levine paying careful attention to supporting the soloists. The Met Chorus, women outfitted in stylish black dresses designed by Isaac Mizrahi, the men in well-tailored suits, sang with delicate subtly and powerful anger, and many seemed touched by the experience. As Ms Stoyanova’s pianissimo floated into the air with final notes of music, we all sat in prolonged silence, mourning Mr Hvorostovsky and many others before him who have graced us with their gift of music.