Domingo leads an affecting `Requiem'

Review: Washington Opera honors Verdi on the 100th anniversary of his death with a potent rendition of his most moving, sacred work.

January 29, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Giuseppe Verdi had little interest in religion, but his agnostic bent did not prevent him from composing a profoundly moving work of sacred music.

His "Requiem" of 1874, prompted by the death of revered Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni, became something far broader in scope and effect. Instead of memorializing a single man, it forms a passionate, frightened prayer for all the living. Instead of being in any way limited by the Latin text of the Roman Catholic Church, it makes a universal statement about frailty and fear, and the prospect of mercy.

On Saturday evening, the Washington Opera commemorated, to the day, the 100th anniversary of Verdi's death with a presentation of the "Requiem" that conveyed much of its emotional power, operatic grandeur and sublime beauty.

There were drawbacks, starting with the acoustics of DAR Constitution Hall, never the most accommodating of venues for music. The generally sturdy Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra had to sit on the main floor, its sound cushioned. The vocal quartet was one voice shy of ideal. And Placido Domingo, the celebrated tenor who has done his share of singing the "Requiem," conducted with more earnestness than authority.

In the end, none of that mattered much, because something deeply communicative was going on in that space.

Domingo, looking pale and tired (he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York the night before), managed to maintain considerable tension in the performance. He fired up the horrific fires of the "Dies Irae" impressively and lingered over moments of rapt lyricism. Although some finer details needed more attention and control, he clearly aimed for the dramatic heart of the music and, when it counted most, reached it.

The superb Washington Opera Chorus, honed by Steven Gathman, sang with precise articulation, smooth balance and lush sound. The hushed opening plea for eternal rest was raptly delivered; the momentary sunlight and melodic playfulness of the "Sanctus" section inspired great clarity and warmth. Choral contributions to the "Agnus Dei" and "Libera Me" movements were likewise affecting.

The four soloists, even the weak link, brought intense convic- tion to their phrases.

Vinson Cole, who has one of the most innately beautiful tenor voices around today, conquered the vast hall with a melting tone at the opening of the "Ingemisco" and "Hostias" passages. He shaped his every line with a kind of inner radiance, as if to suggest a touch of hope beneath the "Requiem's" prevalent darkness and worry. Verdi's music is all too rarely served with such elegant artistry.

Elizabeth Bishop's ripe, enveloping mezzo was another boon. She intoned the "Lacrymosa" with a particularly expressive depth. Tigran Martirossian's mellow bass softened some of the fire and brimstone in the "Dies Irae" but proved an eloquent match for the noble "Confutatis maledictis" solo.

Soprano Susan Patterson lacked her colleagues' tonal nuance or technical assurance. She often sounded strident, sometimes under pitch; the ethereal B-flat Verdi asked for in the "Libera me" section eluded her. But compensation came in the agitated portions of that section, which she underlined vividly.

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