Calvinism for Agnostics

Westminster Cathedral

Calvinism for Agnostics

Messa da Requiem, music by Giuseppe Verdi, concert performance, Royal Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conductor Antonio Pappano, words from the Missa pro Defunctis, Royal Opera, 23rd October 2018

Verdi Requiem, Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Monteverdi Choir, conductor John Eliot Gardiner, Westminster Cathedral, 18th September 2018

Reviewed by Leslie Jones

According to Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, in his dotage, fell snivelling at the foot of the cross. The same could hardly be said of Verdi, who never went to church once during his adult life. His Requiem, as Marin Alsop has observed, “…is a mass written by an agnostic”

The prospect of death, for an unbeliever, may be more terrifying than for a devout Christian, hell fire notwithstanding. In “A Powerful Expression of Life”, David Cairns calls Verdi’s Requiem “…the passionate protest of a man who rebels against the outrage that is death” (Official Programme, Westminster Cathedral). The final words of the Libera Me, sung by the soprano, are “Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death, on that dreadful day”. The soprano “is left stripped of any armour that religion might provide…there is no salvation at all but only eternal silence” (Peter Gutsman, Classical Notes, 2009). The last bars, appropriately, are marked morendo or dying away.

Westminster Cathedral provided the near perfect setting and acoustic for what Hans von Bülow called Verdi’s “opera in ecclesiastical costume”. In the Dies Irae, the trumpets, which herald the Judge’s arrival, were located in the gallery; bass Gianluca Buratto sung the passage “Death and nature shall be dumbfounded when creation rises again to answer its Judge” from the pulpit; and candles flickered in the lady chapel, like souls in jeopardy.

Royal Opera has a drier acoustic. The staging was somewhat Spartan. But in the Messa da Requiem, it is the exquisite incidental orchestral music that ultimately stays with you, an integral part of what John Snelson calls Verdi’s “operatic lyricism” (‘Three Funerals, One Requiem’, Official Programme). Antonio Pappano’s forces at Royal Opera excelled in several of these passages, notably in the Lux Aeterna. A febrile and frenetic figure qua conductor, Pappano presents a stark contrast to that of the measured and composed John Eliot Gardiner.

It would perhaps be churlish to single out any of the soloists in either performance. So here goes. At Westminster Cathedral, American soprano Corinne Winters, a slight but striking figure, excelled. She is an exquisitely expressive singer. At Royal Opera, mezzo soprano Jamie Barton and tenor Benjamin Bernheim also left a lasting impression.

The Requiem Mass is eminently adaptable. In his War Requiem, Benjamin Britten gave it a secular, pacifist orientation. Conductor Antonio Pappano, in a brief speech preceding the performance at Royal Opera, reminded us accordingly that Armistice Day is fast approaching. He also referred to the recent death of soprano Montserrat Caballé, evidently a much admired figure at Covent Garden. Just occasionally, opera feels like family.

Montserrat Caballé

Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of QR

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