The thundering Dies irae of Verdi's Requiem has been used incongruously in Dublin as the soundtrack for a video touting a haunted-house bus tour of the city. This misappropriation can perhaps be forgiven following the staging of not one but two performances of Verdi's transformative work in Dublin within two months. I missed the first occasion in April, but the performance by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir under the baton of Italian maestro Michele Mariotti at the National Concert Hall was a splendid affair. Not only were the orchestra and chorus in peak form, but it was apparent that someone had gone to a lot of trouble to assemble a sterling foursome of soloists. American soprano Angela Meade was joined by mezzo-soprano Enkelejda Shkosa, a regular on European opera stages. Italian tenor Antonio Poli and Russian bass Evgeny Stavinsky made up the male ranks.

Michele Mariotti © Victor Santiago
Michele Mariotti
© Victor Santiago

It is well known that the final Libera me section of the Requiem began life as part of a failed collective effort by Italian composers to honour Rossini. Verdi resurrected it for his later Requiem, written to commemorate the death of Alessandro Manzoni, whom Verdi and the Italian public revered as the nation's greatest writer. But Verdi was not content to compose another mass for the dead. From the wild fury of the last judgment depicted in the Dies irae, with its blaring brass and body-shaking bass drums, to the plaintive entries by the solo voices that would be at home in Verdi's operas, the piece is better suited to the concert hall than the church. It broke new ground and it surely eased the way for Bernstein's Mass and a host of other such works.

The RTÉ orchestra and chorus seemed super-energised and anyone who attended hoping to be blown away by the sheer volume of the Dies irae would not have been disappointed. But it was in the delicate quartet and solo work by the four main singers that the performance really shone.

Poli and Stavinsky both made marvellous work of their respective Ingemisco and Confutatis solos. Stavinsky, who studied at the Moscow-based Academy of Choral Art, has one of those distinctively Russian voices that makes you think of Boris Godunov, which is no bad thing in this most operatic of requiems. Poli's tenor may have needed a bit more oomph, but there was nothing to complain about his pitch or phrasing. The Lacrymosa quartet, with choral accompaniment, was heavenly, leading to the famous Amen, set unexpectedly to a chord of G major, after which the orchestra ends the piece in B flat major. It is an effect that Donald Tovey calls "one of the subtlest and most impressive strokes of genius in all Verdi's work"... and Mariotti nailed it.

In the Offertory's Domine Jesu, Meade shone in the soprano solo, beautifully backed by leader Tamas Kocsis, in the passage that segues into the stunning "Abraham thou didst promise" section. This is where the soloists have their chance to shine and the singing was glorious. Apart from Poli being a bit breathy, all the voices were superb as they pleaded to God to remember his promise to Abraham, to guide and protect them. The subsequent Sanctus is the chorus' moment in the limelight, the movement being a fugue that tests everyone's coordination. The RTÉ Philharmonic Choir passed the test with flying colours, Verdi's bandstand-style runs in the orchestra offering an exhilarating backdrop.

Meade and Shkosa commenced the Agnus Dei unaccompanied, which afforded a chance to admire what fine voices they have. Shkosa in particular provided a powerful grounding in these wonderful passages, with Verdi's famous three flutes weaving their magic around the women's voices. Paradise in music.

The woodwinds get another chance to shine in the Lux aeterna, which is essentially a trio for mezzo, tenor and bass, with the soprano given a rest, so she can power us along with the chorus through the concluding Libera me, where the chorus reprises the Dies irae, later drawing it all to a pppp close, mirroring the work's opening. The more you hear Verdi's Requiem, the more you appreciate its power, subtlety and beauty, all conveyed to an appreciative house on a glorious night at the National Concert Hall.

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