Riccardo Muti has been conducting the Verdi Requiem for, what? Fifty years? He has devoted much of his life to Verdi, and the Requiem stands at the summit, you could say, of Verdi’s output.
Muti has conducted the Requiem with many orchestras, many choruses, and many soloists. Some of these soloists have entered the realm of legend: Pavarotti, for example, and Scotto. (Luciano Pavarotti is no longer with us, but Renata Scotto is, and she is teaching. I interviewed her student Rosa Feola last week. Feola, a soprano, is a budding star.)
Last night, Muti conducted the Verdi Requiem at the Salzburg Festival. The orchestra, as is customary here in Salzburg, was the Vienna Philharmonic, and the chorus was its associated chorus (to put it simply). The soloists were Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano; Anita Rachvelishvili, mezzo-soprano; Francesco Meli, tenor; and Ildar Abdrazakov, bass.
To take care of nationality, you had a Bulgarian, a Georgian, an Italian, and a Russian from Bashkortostan.
These are four of Maestro Muti’s favorite singers, and four of the best. You could not assemble a better quartet for the Requiem. An equally good one, maybe. A better one, no.
Verdi apportions his material with notable equality among the four soloists. . . . Each of them is important, and each of them has a chance to shine.
Muti and his forces delivered a powerful, sensitive, moving Requiem, doing justice to the work. The performance was both oratorio-like and operatic, like the Requiem itself. Muti does not conduct this piece the same way every time. For example, the Sanctus last night was slower than he has conducted it in the past—more stately and less scherzo-like. Grander.
There were flaws in the performance, such as occasional disunity. Problems of coordination, is another way to put this. But we were not listening to a studio recording, thank heaven, and this performance was human—human as well as divine.
Abdrazakov sang with great beauty. So did Meli. He also sang in tune, which is always a bonus—more important than people may know. Meli gave us an honest piano in Hostias. Some tenors, even great ones, try to fake a piano. The real McCoy is better.
I was a little worried about Rachvelishvili, frankly. Why should one worry about one of the securest, most dependable singers before the public today? Because when she walked out, she seemed to me to have undergone a considerable weight loss. Had she pulled a Callas? A Voigt? Would it have an effect on her voice?
We can rest easy: Rachvelishvili was her extraordinary self. She sang Liber scriptus, for example, with amazing intensity. One was riveted.
By the way, Verdi apportions his material with notable equality among the four soloists. (There is plenty for the orchestra and the chorus to do, too.) Each of them is important, and each of them has a chance to shine. Contrast this with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—its choral movement—where the mezzo is scarcely heard.
I once discussed this with a famous mezzo. She said, “You know what I say to mezzos who are going to sing Beethoven’s Ninth? ‘Wear a pretty dress.’”
Though Verdi is an equal-opportunity provider in his Requiem, he does give the soprano the last word, in a sense. It is she who is the soloist in Libera me. La Stoyanova is one of the most soulful singers we have ever heard. She is warm, intelligent, endearing. I have written about her qualities, or tried to, many times. Does she have the voice for the Verdi Requiem? Not really. She cannot soar through, or ride over, the orchestra and chorus. But what she has is marvelous. You would not trade her, or I wouldn’t, for a louder soprano.
Incidentally, there were two Bulgarians on the stage, working about two feet from each other, in important roles. The other was Albena Danailova, serving as concertmistress. She is a superb violinist, as one can hear in chamber music, for example.
I left the hall newly impressed by Verdi for his Requiem, and newly impressed by Muti for his commitment to Verdi, and to high musical standards. Also, those four soloists, always worthy, more than proved their worth.
Let me append a footnote. Early on—in the first pages of the Requiem—there was some coughing in the audience, and Muti, while conducting, turned around as if to say, “What gives?” I used to scold him for this—for his scolding of the audience. Sometimes, he outright glares at them. I have seen him stop conducting too, when there is noise in the audience.
But, you know? I have come to appreciate it—Muti’s scolding of the crowd. Too many leaders kiss the rear ends of The People. A leader who whacks those rear ends now and then is, to my mind, refreshing.