In an oft-quoted remark, the conductor Hans von Bülow called Verdi’s Requiem “his latest opera, in ecclesiastical garb.” This was intended as a put-down of Verdi generally, but it also stands for the proposition that an operatic mode of discourse ill suits a sacred text. Von Bülow later apologized to Verdi, but the question about suitability persists, and given the bel canto style, which favored vocal display, that was prevalent earlier in the nineteenth century, a work like Rossini’s Stabat Mater is vulnerable to such criticism. It was initially conceived for performance in Madrid, but Rossini fell ill and enlisted the services of a colleague to complete it. Only in 1842 did it reach its definitive form, with music wholly by Rossini, when it was performed at the Théâtre-Italien—Paris’s venue for Italian opera—with a stunning array of soloists that included the soprano Giulia Grisi; her husband, a tenor known simply as Mario; and the baritone Antonio Tamburini. (The second soprano soloist was a lesser-known mezzo-soprano, Emma Albertazzi.) Following the dress rehearsal, the fifty-year-old composer, who had retired from writing operas with Guillaume Tell thirteen years earlier, was escorted home by five hundred smitten fans. The work caused a sensation.
Riccardo Muti chose this opera for the finale of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2017–18 season in Symphony Hall, preceded by vocal works of Cherubini and Mozart. (I attended the performance on June 24.) Muti demonstrated anew how riveting the piece can be. Yes, the operatic elements were easy to identify in Rossini’s setting of the thirteenth-century Latin text, which imagines the Virgin Mary witnessing Christ’s crucifixion. The second number, the aria “Cujus animam,” has a sunny melody that any tenor would find ingratiating, and it includes a high D flat. But does the tune fit the words, which speak of Mary’s anguish and grief? In fact, any perceived disparity is simply a product of Rossini’s style, unrelated to the religious text. Those familiar with Rossini’s serious operas (which are too rarely encountered in America’s opera houses) will have experienced other supposed mismatches between stormy emotions and cheerful-sounding music. With experience, one learns to appreciate the sincerity of Rossini’s form of expression and the way it functions within a larger context.
Elsewhere, the Stabat Mater unmistakably bears the stamp of church music, with two a cappella numbers and a full-blown final fugue as the most obvious examples. Indeed, the superbly achieved balance between operatic and church elements is what gives the work its essential character. Muti’s performance reflected this dynamic. Each side of the work received its due, as did concern for how they complement each other. A flexible tempo in the coda of “Cujus animam” helped realize its expressive potential. In the jaunty quartet “Sancta mater istud agas,” the radiant shift to C-flat major worked its celestial effect. A cappella numbers unfolded with dramatic purpose. The music was shaped to avoid any hint of triviality.
The soloists—Krassimira Stoyanova, Ekaterina Gubanova, Dmitry Korchak, and Eric Owens—may not have reached the heights of the Anna Netrebko–led quartet on Antonio Pappano’s studio recording, but they came close. Stoyanova’s voice has an alluring Eastern European resonance similar to Netrebko’s, although her high Cs in “Inflamatus et accensus” didn’t soar. Muti has entrusted a cappella music to the Chicago Symphony Chorus rather than soloists. His confidence in the ensemble, an able participant throughout, was not misplaced.
The Stabat Mater was preceded by two works of unimpeachable rectitude. Luigi Cherubini may have had The Creation in mind when he wrote the twenty-minute Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn. This fascinating work begins with a ruminative, imaginatively orchestrated, and harmonically rich instrumental introduction that suggested inspiration from the subject composer’s oratorio. The orchestra showed a fine feeling for its numerous striking effects, such as cellos divided into four parts, a device taken up by subsequent Italian composers. Later, a gentle C-major theme, redolent of the oratorio’s more innocent moments, was presented by a vocal trio in which Stoyanova and Korchak were joined by the plaintive tenor of Enea Scala to create a lovely blend. Muti, who has long championed the underappreciated Cherubini, made a strong case for the work. Oddly enough, though, Haydn was still alive when it was written. In an early display of fake news, rumors of his death swept Paris (where Cherubini based his career) in 1805, but the Chant was not performed until after Haydn’s death in 1809.
The concert opened with Mozart’s stand-alone Kyrie in D minor, K.341, a work about which little is known. Once thought to have been written around the time Mozart left Salzburg (and quit writing for the church)—hence the Köchel listing—it has been plausibly suggested to be a late work written when he saw prospects for renewing church contacts. Its minor key and somber tone suggest Mozart’s last work, his Requiem, something that Muti and the chorus may have had in mind in giving their absorbing performance. But don’t get the idea Mozart shirked from spicing his church music with operatic gestures. His C-minor Mass has a passage in which dueling sopranos trade high B flats.