In September—on the day itself—the Metropolitan Opera gave a performance of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem to mark the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The Met has performed the Requiem many times, especially on mournful occasions. (Obviously?) The very first Met performance was in 1901, after the death of the composer.
Conducting that performance was Luigi Mancinelli, whose name we would know today if he had lived into the age of recordings (or longer into it). The four vocal soloists included two legends-to-be: Lillian Nordica and Ernestine Schumann-Heink. The latter was a mezzo-soprano, born in the Austrian Empire, later a U.S. citizen. Nordica was a soprano from Maine, the “Yankee Diva”—the first international opera star of American nationality. She was born Lillian Allen Norton. That was a little white-bread, for a big career—so “Nordica” it was.
I had the pleasure of knowing Nordica’s great-great-nephew, Clive Babkirk, a woodworker and furniture-maker. His mother’s name was Ellen Nordica Norton. Her great-aunt, the singer, was present at her birth.
The Met again performed the Verdi Requiem in March 1964, about four months after the assassination. This performance was in memory of President Kennedy. Georg Solti was on the podium, with a stellar quartet: Leontyne Price, Rosalind Elias, Carlo Bergonzi, and Cesare Siepi. The Requiem was not alone on the program: Solti also led a scene from Wagner’s Parsifal (Act III, Scene 2). In 1982, the Met performed the Requiem in memory of Francis Robinson, a longtime official of the company—“Mr. Metropolitan,” he was called. Price again was the soprano, and this time the conductor was James Levine, six years into his tenure as the Met’s music director.
Luciano Pavarotti died in 2007. The next year, the Met honored him with a Verdi Requiem. Among the soloists was Marcello Giordani. “As the tenor,” I wrote in my review, “he occupied a tricky position: the Pavarotti position. One can imagine that it was both an honor for him to be in the quartet and a bit of a burden.”
Sometimes, the Met performs the Requiem because the company is on tour—and, with a requiem, you don’t have to go to the trouble of staging an opera, and you can still show off your conductor, your orchestra, your chorus, and four of your biggest stars. Does the Met ever perform the Requiem at home, just because? Not to honor anyone, but just to sing and play the Requiem?
In 2017, the Met was supposed to stage La forza del destino (the Verdi opera). But the production fell through, and the Met substituted a run of Verdi Requiems. Just before the first performance, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the great Russian baritone, died. So the Met dedicated the Requiems to his memory.
One of the greatest performances I have ever heard—of any work, in all my life—was of the Verdi Requiem by Met forces. This was in Carnegie Hall, in April 2001. Levine was on the podium. The quartet was Renée Fleming, Olga Borodina, Giordani, and René Pape. When it was all over, something strange happened. Most of the audience filed out—but many in the audience remained, just sort of milling around, not saying much. They were reluctant to leave. I think they wanted to stay in the atmosphere of that remarkable Requiem—that peak musical experience—for as long as they could.
Misty Copeland was 100 percent right when she said that “Verdi summoned all of his genius in creating the work you are about to hear.”
When the Met performed the Requiem on 9/11/21, the concert was broadcast on pbs, in the Great Performances series. (Are all of these performances “great”? That may be a hope, more than a promise.) Introducing the evening for pbs was Misty Copeland, the ballerina, a principal with American Ballet Theatre. She did her hosting duties at Ground Zero. Copeland said that the concert would be “dedicated to the innocent lives lost on 9/11, twenty years ago to this day; to the valiant first-responders, many of whom died trying to save them; and to all the families who still bear the weight of that unspeakable tragedy.”
I don’t wish to quibble with Misty Copeland, or the scriptwriters, but I will record a memory: many of us, at the time, balked at the word “tragedy,” saying that this was a crime, an atrocity, an act of war.
Copeland further said that the Met would be “offering commemoration and solace with a live performance of classical music’s most beautiful and stirring homage to those we’ve lost: Verdi’s Requiem.” Is that characterization true? It is certainly arguable. In the field of requiems, you also have the Mozart, the Brahms, and the Fauré. In any event, Verdi’s Requiem is doubtless one of that composer’s greatest works—an oratorio suffused with the operatic—and one of the greatest works in all of music. Misty Copeland was 100 percent right when she said that “Verdi summoned all of his genius in creating the work you are about to hear.”
She said something else—something that was surprising and touching, at least to me: “We also pray for what someday might be a better world.”
The conductor for the evening was the Met’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. When he and the four soloists entered, the crowd erupted in applause. It was a huge, roaring ovation—a standing one, too. It went on and on. The night’s performance was the first in the Metropolitan Opera House since the onset of the pandemic. The applause, pent up, poured forth.
For a second, I was afraid that Nézet-Séguin was going to talk. But he turned to the orchestra and chorus and got to work. I noted something in 2008, when Levine & Co. performed the Verdi Requiem in memory of Pavarotti. “There was no announcement beforehand, no speech. Everyone knew what we were there for, and no talking was necessary.” The music does all the talking necessary.
There is more than one way to conduct the Verdi Requiem. Some readings lean toward the Classical, the rigorous, the Beethoven-like; some readings lean toward the Romantic, or more relaxed. George Szell would be an excellent example of the first school—so would one of his apprentices, James Levine. As for the second, I once heard Sir Colin Davis give a performance that was almost Berliozian.
Singers ought to use what they have, not trying to be other than as they are.
Please note, I have spoken in the most general terms. Any Verdi Requiem worth its salt will combine both discipline and, to a degree, liberality.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted a beautiful Requiem. In my estimation, it was often too relaxed, needing more of a pulse, more of a spine. There were little pauses and other interpretive choices that would not have been my own. But was it Verdi? That is, was this reading within Verdian parameters? It was.
In a sense, the chorus is the most important “soloist” in the Requiem, and the Met’s, prepared by Donald Palumbo, was equal to the challenge. The Met’s orchestra, too, was commendable. There were smudges and glitches here and there, but this is part of the glory of live (as distinct from studio, and doctored). I might say, too, that this was a chance to see the Met orchestra. In the house, the orchestra is customarily in the pit, while on this night it was on the stage.
As there is more than one way to conduct the Verdi Requiem, there is more than one way to sing it, if you’re a soloist. You have classic Verdians, of course—powerful, rugged singers. You also have those of a more lyrical bent. For many of us, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf handled the soprano part superbly—untraditionally but superbly. The main point is, singers ought to use what they have, not trying to be other than as they are.
Matthew Polenzani was the tenor soloist at the Met. He is a beautiful singer, a lyrical singer—yet with enough heft for, say, the Ingemisco (a section of the Requiem, almost a tenor aria). In the Hostias, some tenors fake a piano—but Polenzani is capable of a genuine one, an honest one. This was an outstanding moment of the performance at large. The bass part was taken by Eric Owens, a bass-baritone, from whom one might have wanted more sound. Yet he made use of what he had, and he was effective in doing so. Sometimes his singing was rough around the edges—but he always had a gravity that communicated the music.
The mezzo-soprano—another American, in this all-American quartet—was Michelle DeYoung. She sang her music incisively and dramatically. She was holding nothing back, as why should one? From the soprano—especially in the closing section, the Libera me—you want lyricism and power, or at least an ability to cut: a knife-like power. You want high notes that float, and other notes that scald, or importune. Ailyn Pérez delivered.
Later in September, the Met opened its 2021–22 opera season. Again, the audience exploded in applause at the beginning. This happened when the concertmaster (I gather) appeared on the podium, to tune. It took a long, long time for the tuning to begin, as the audience wanted to release its applause. Then Yannick Nézet-Séguin appeared on the podium, to lead the orchestra in the national anthem, as the audience sang.
Both the Met and the New York Philharmonic begin their seasons with the national anthem. As I have long observed, the way a maestro conducts the anthem tells you something essential about the maestro himself. In the anthem, Levine was always straightforward, brisk, and virile. Lorin Maazel was rather freer, and spontaneous. Under Nézet-Séguin, the orchestra was both light-sounding and energetic.
By the way, when the anthem got to the word “free”—at the end of the phrase “o’er the land of the free”—more than a few in the audience went up to the high B flat. Obviously, there were singers among us.
I will quote Met publicity: “Opening Night of the 2021–22 season will be a historic occasion—the Met’s first performance of an opera by a Black composer.” That opera was Fire Shut Up in My Bones, by Terence Blanchard. It premiered in St. Louis two years ago. The opera is based on a memoir—also called Fire Shut Up in My Bones—by Charles M. Blow, best known as a New York Times columnist. The title comes from the Bible—Jeremiah 20:9, which, in the King James Version, reads, “his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.”
Terence Blanchard is a New Orleanian, born in 1962. True to his city, he is a jazzman. Blanchard grew up with, among others, the Marsalis brothers. He is a trumpeter, who started his career with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. He has composed many film scores, especially for the director Spike Lee. Fire Shut Up in My Bones is his second opera.
His works, says Met publicity, “express his roots in jazz but defy further categorization.” I can report that this is true of Fire Shut Up in My Bones. The score has standard American neo-Romanticism, found in many contemporary operas. It also has jazz, blues, gospel, pop, funk, and more. The score is earnest and competent. Does it tickle your fancy, engage your interest, touch your heart, stick to your ribs? That depends on you, of course. I found the second half of the opera—roughly Acts II and III—more engaging than the first, musically.
In any case, Yannick Nézet-Séguin was utterly committed to the work, doing it proud.
The story is about Charles Blow’s boyhood and young adulthood in small-town Louisiana. He is an outsider, picked on, hungry for love, confused. At the age of seven, he is sexually assaulted by an older cousin. This haunts and consumes him, until he must work it out, come what may. The story is very touching.
Question: is it a black story? It is in a black-American setting, of course. But the story is a human one, and the protagonist could be anyone, in whatever setting. The suffering will be familiar to many, no doubt. It must have taken courage for Blow to write his book.
Kasi Lemmons fashioned the libretto. She is a film director and an actress, in addition to being a writer. The libretto is in the vernacular—natural and, to my mind, refreshing. This is an American tongue, right down to “mothafucka” and “heffa” (i.e., heifer). None of the profanity is gratuitous; it is simply right, and you could even say faithful.
The opera needs two Charles Blows—the boy Charles (called “Char’es-Baby”) and the older one (up to the college years). The younger one was portrayed, touchingly and winningly, by Walter Russell III. The older one was portrayed by the baritone Will Liverman. He too was touching and winning. He has a beautiful voice. I wanted to pull it forward, so it could be heard better. The soprano Angel Blue played a trio of roles, supplying her lush, attractive sound. Another soprano, Latonia Moore, was Charles’s mother, Billie. I have been praising this singer since she appeared in Weill Recital Hall, back in 2007. She has voice, technique, musical understanding—and that intangible, heart.
It is the Met’s job—or one of them—to present the greatest singers of the age—whatever age it is—in their best roles. Chaliapin as Boris, or Mefistofele. Callas as Norma, or Lucia. Pavarotti as Rodolfo, or Tonio (of the nine-high-C’s aria). Pape as Sarastro, or King Mark—or Boris.
On the night after Opening Night, René Pape, the German bass, sang Boris, which is to say, the title role of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. It is arguably the greatest bass opera. (How often do tenors have pride of place? Not to mention sopranos and mezzo-sopranos. Even baritones!) Boris Godunov was much tinkered with—much revised—by the composer himself and by those trying to help him. The Met, for the first time, performed the composer’s original version, from 1869: seven scenes. It is splendid. The Met performed the opera without intermission, making it, at two hours and twenty minutes, a long sit, but also providing for musical and dramatic continuity. Flow, if you like.
This was a beautiful Boris. It was almost an oratorio, or an oratorio with operatic elements, like the Verdi Requiem.
The singers, starting with Boris, are highly important, but no one involved in the opera is more important than the conductor, and Sebastian Weigle, a German, was magnificent in his role. Exemplary. The opera had its grandeur and its intimacy, both. The orchestra told the story—Pushkin’s tragic historical tale—as much as the singers did. Weigle kept the opera moving along, with no sense of rushing. He discovered the motor—the internal motor—of the opera. There was no bombast whatsoever. I detected no imposition of personality, just the opera itself.
And the Met’s orchestra was beautifully responsive. The low woodwinds ought to be singled out for praise.
Above, I said that, in a way, the chorus is the most important “soloist” in Verdi’s Requiem. So too, the chorus is the most important “character” in Boris Godunov. Boris is one of the most choral operas in the repertoire. One could see—could hear—the importance of the Met chorus to the company’s operation—and its success—as a whole.
Does René Pape still got it? He does. One had to make no allowances for age. If the voice is less than it was, it is negligibly less. And Pape communicated pathos with no overacting.
As Boris Godunov is possibly the most choral opera, it is possibly the most male opera: there is a lot of testosterone upon the stage. The Met’s cast did not really have a weak link. Ain Anger, an Estonian bass, scored a triumph as Pimen. He has a voice of glowing beauty, putting me in mind of the veteran Englishman Robert Lloyd, somewhat. There is a nurse, or nanny, in this opera: she was played by Eve Gigliotti, an American mezzo. (Any relation to the Philadelphia Orchestra Gigliottis?) She has a huge, lush instrument, almost Blythe-esque.
This was a beautiful Boris. It was almost an oratorio, or an oratorio with operatic elements, like the Verdi Requiem. Alternatively, it was like an extended prayer. I had a funny thought after that two-hour-and-twenty-minute sit: I wanted to hear it again.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 3, on page 53
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