Verdi’s Messa da Requiem is a spectacularly beautiful piece of music theatre, written late in the 19th century in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, famous Italian poet and novelist whom Verdi greatly admired. It had its liturgical première in the 13th century St Mark’s Church in Milan, a church which claims both Mozart and Martin Luther among its attenders. A few days later it received its concert première across town at La Scala – and the debate has continued ever since: is it a sacred or a secular work? The issue is muddied, as many would argue that the late 19th century was the highpoint of low liturgical practice. Nowdays, Verdi's Requiem is usually performed without interruption, which works well in the concert hall, but not for a church service. And the issue is now academic – not for a long time have the texts which were in use in Verdi’s day been part of a Catholic funeral liturgy. However they do continue to make for outstanding concert music – and are still capable of inspiring meditation on the awe or the mercy of God, the meaning of life and death, and what both Requiem æternam and Lux Aeterna might mean (eternal rest and light).

Giuseppe Verdi © Giovanni Boldini
Giuseppe Verdi
© Giovanni Boldini

I was bowled over both by the beauty of the work and by the amazing quality of this performance. Maximising the limited use of the Adelaide Festival Theatre that the State Opera is allocated, they are alternating performances of Verdi’s Requiem with performances of Gounod’s Faust, using every precious night they have been given. The bonus of the Requiem being performed on the set of Faust, with large crucifix rising above the chorus is the unique religious focus it allows.

Directing both chorus and orchestra, the dynamic Timothy Sexton was successful in melding both into a single body of sound. The chorus was magnificent, with remarkably clear diction for such a large group of singers (although smaller than most Requiem choruses). From the softness of the initial Requiem æternam dona eis to the power of the repeated Dies irae, dies illa or Benedictus qui venit they thrilled as every next part they presented overflowed with rich passion and feeling. They seemed however to wait for the complicated eight part fugued Sanctus to really let their hair down to enjoy themselves in happily proclaiming the holiness of the Lord.

The four soloists blended well together – they were remarkable in the offertory Domine Jesu –and with both chorus and orchestra, having no difficulty ensuring their voices were heard, even with such intense volume around them. While they did for the most part draw confidence having their scores in their hands as they sang (like a sort of Linus blanket) this gave them the freedom to excel in their roles, whether separately or together, to sing with a full bodied emotion that evoked such a strong rich enjoyment in an audience which was being absorbed into the power of the work.

There was a freshness to soprano Teresa la Rocca’s voice, which seemed to float through the theatre like a strand of silk wafting in the breeze. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Campbell, equally at home performing in opera, on stage, or at a country town open air Christmas carols concert, sang with apparent ease; her beautiful contributions to the Lacrimosa brought me close to tears, and I was overawed by the meditative Agnus Dei where both Campbell and La Rocca blended so beautifully and sweetly together they seemed at times to be but one voice. I suspect it wasn’t consciously done, that as they sung their heads tended to tilt towards each other.

Tenor Diego Torre was impressive, his voice having a lovely resonance, his ability to evoke moments of contemplation outstanding. The more meditative his singing, the more his eyes seemed to close over, as if he too was mentally contemplating the meaning of the words as he sang them out loud. Beautifully rich voiced bass Douglas McNicol seemed to know his lines best of all, and was able to scan the balcony (maybe raising his eyes towards the heavens) as he sang.

I left the theatre in reflective awe. I had just had an experience musically richer than I could ever previously remember. Maybe I had enjoyed other occasions as much, but if so they had not touched me in the way that Verdi’s Requiem had done. Truly a night I will always treasure. What a remarkable experience!