Dutch opera star Eva-Maria Westbroek is in the Netherlands for two benefit concerts within a week of each other. This Friday she appears at the Concertgebouw in a gala concert in aid of the Staetshuys Fund, which supports young classical singers. Last Saturday she sang Verdi’s Messa da Requiem to support Musicians without Borders, for which she is an ambassador. This organisation runs music-based projects in conflict-scarred areas around the world, believing that music is both conciliatory and therapeutic. The choice for the Verdi Requiem stems from inspired coincidence. Conductor Boudewijn Jansen came across an account of Rafael Schächter’s Requiem performances in Theresienstadt concentration camp. Possessing only a single score, Schächter trained a choir to sing with piano accompaniment. Although choir members were being deported to Auschwitz for extermination between performances, survivors described the joy they felt while singing. Following up on an erstwhile invitation by Ms Westbroek, Mr Jansen called her at a time when she was thinking about this benefit concert. For both of them, the Theresienstadt-Requiem connection resonated with the aims of Musicians without Borders.

Eva-Maria Westbroek © Andrea Kremper
Eva-Maria Westbroek
© Andrea Kremper

Their enthusiasm discernably fired the other performers at the practically sold-out Royal Theater Carré. This performance of what is perhaps the mightiest of requiem masses was huge in many ways. The ranks of the Toonkunstkoor Amsterdam, expanded with the VU University Chamber Choir, spilled around the flanks of the proscenium arch. Mr Jansen, conducting with vigorous, broad strokes, made full use of the massive choral volume. He also dialled up the North Netherlands Orchestra to the maximum, not just in the tumultuous Dies irae, but also in the ascending passages with the soloists, such as the plea for salvation in the Rex tremendae. With three of the four soloists possessing large, dramatic voices, there was no danger of drowning them out. Things did not always proceed seamlessly. There were intonation misses in the brass fanfares and the occasional misalignment between soloist and ensemble. The treacherous Lux aeterna trio swerved unsteadily. However, its overall expansiveness and theatrical energy made this an exhilarating performance.

Soloists and choir provided a string of vocal treats. Mr Jansen is the principal conductor of both choirs and the clear communication with “his” singers yielded a secure, laudable performance. Vibrato-light singing, especially in the women’s voices, gave the desperate cries a fitting rawness, and the dynamic Sanctus showed that talented amateurs can sound as good as professionals. The NNO responded with verve to Mr Jansen’s brisk beat. Their playing, although not always varnished, was compellingly imperative. In the quieter moments, the high woodwinds were particularly exquisite.

Jaco Huijpen’s rolling bass was not always steadfast on its way up, but his rock-solid, booming low notes made for an authoritative Tuba mirum. Barring the Lux aeterna, he also provided a firm plinth for the higher solo voices. Like his wife, Ms Westbroek, Frank van Aken has an international career that keeps him away from home stages – a shame, because full-throttle Wagnerian voices like his are scarce. The tenor often gets engulfed in the Requiem ensembles, but Mr Van Aken cut through the swelling passages, such as those in the Offertorium, loud and clear. Some dryness in the throat interfered with his Ingemisco, but elsewhere his forte singing was consistently thrilling. Tania Kross’ mezzo-soprano is not as large as the other soloists’, but, to her credit, she never forced and was only covered in the choral fortissimos. Her voice is sensuous, with smoothly woven registers, and she was highly expressive with the words. Ms Kross may not have the heft of a true Verdi mezzo, but it is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Liber scriptus. Her lush sound combined most attractively with Ms Westbroek’s sterling soprano in the Recordare duet. It was extremely rewarding to hear Ms Westbroek, a full spinto soprano, soaring above everyone else in the big climaxes. Her voice is best experienced live: microphones do not do full justice to its complexity. The vibrato loosens perilously in the upper register, but her other qualities more than compensate for this. Her voice is powerful yet youthful, a rare combination, and sumptuous in the lower and middle ranges. Most importantly, Ms Westbroek knows how to shape the Verdian line, with stylish portamenti and liquid-gold piani. And, like her colleagues, she approached the liturgical text operatically, peaking theatrically in the Libera me.

Beside the upcoming benefit concert, which also features Ms Kross and Mr Van Aken, Ms Westbroek is also appearing in The Twelve Hour Prom at this year’s Holland Festival. And she will close Dutch National Opera’s 2015-2016 season with two concerts to celebrate the company’s 50th year. Hopefully, this exceptional, charismatic singer will keep returning regularly to perform in her home country.