Apart from the precious Quattro pezzi sacri, Verdi wrote very little sacred music until this Requiem, probably due to his agnosticism. When Alessandro Manzoni, one of the most important and admired Italian literary figures, died on the 22nd of May 1873, Verdi felt that something in the Italian cultural world had come to an end. To celebrate the author of I promessi sposi, Verdi therefore composed a monumental mass, set to the latin text of Missa pro defunctis for four soloists, choir and orchestra. The Messa da Requiem was premièred on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, Verdi himself conducting at the San Marco church in Milan.

In this Salzburg Festival edition, this performance of the Requiem came from Alexander Pereira’s (the superintendent now on his way to La Scala) desire to cover different stages of Verdi and Wagner’s output, and to honour both. This project will stretch from the early Nabucco (coming under Muti’s baton with the Opera di Roma Theatre at the end of August in a concert performance) and Giovanna d’Arco, passing through Don Carlo, until the late works such as Falstaff and the Messa da Requiem.

The well-established Verdi conductor Riccardo Muti, at the head of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera Chorus, offered an impressive performance of Verdi’s Requiem. Muti has been working with the Vienna Philharmonic (which in 2011 awarded him their honorary membership) from time immemorial and this long-time relationship is evident from the performance. Muti simply knows how to make a distinctive Italian imprint upon the Vienna Philharmonic. Moreover, Verdi’s Requiem has been part of Muti’s repertoire for 30 years.

The whispering beginning, “Requiem aeternam”, is soft and rich in shades, discernible even in the vast space of the Großes Festspielhaus. Despite this calm introduction, the theatre curtains are only metaphorically opened when the Kyrie starts. But the Dies irae, which Verdi chose to interpolate several times in his mass, opens the gates of hell. The theatrical quality of Verdi’s Requiem is well known, and can be a risky trap, but Muti never overdid it. His deep understanding of the score discloses a great command of the chiaroscuro that this demanding work requires.

The vocal qualities of the singers were uneven. Elīna Garanča’s timbre was full of colours, yielding, and especially moving in the opening line of the Lacrimosa. The precise Krassimira Stoyanova was celestial in her high vocal extension (in particular in the Libera me as well in the Offertorium), but not very at ease in the lower notes. Nevertheless, when Garanča and Stoyanova sang together, they were perfect. The Rex tremendae simply gave me shivers. Dmitry Belosselskiy has a stentorian, well-measured voice. Piotr Beczała was the slightly weaker element of the vocal quartet, tending to be too operatic and occasionally forcing his voice. Overall, however, the singers’ performance was strong, even if not always perfectly together.

The Vienna State Opera Chorus certainly have what it takes. Choral director Ernst Raffelsberger’s work is discernible in the Libera me fugato, in which the supernatural qualities of Verdi’s music can be felt. Here, both the light and shade of this composition were very well conveyed. A special mention, too, must go to the strings for their airy opening of Lux aeterna.