Sunday, October 13, 2013

Verdi Requiem performance benefits from nearly ideal solo quartet


Just missing Verdi's 200th birthday and shy of Krzysztof Urbanski's 31st, this weekend's concerts by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra had a celebratory feeling.

As heard Saturday evening at Hilbert Circle Theatre, Verdi's Requiem was so well-performed that its gloomy, anxious message about death, while delivered with suitable pathos, fear and trembling, seemed high on life. A likely atheist, the composer was moved in this work to probe the emotional impact of the Latin Mass for the Dead as well as memorialize a hero of Italian nationalism and art, Alessandro Manzoni, best-known for his novel "I Promessi Sposi."

Urbanski showed a well-defined keenness in managing the large forces, not only the substantial orchestra (including offstage trumpets in "Tuba mirum"),  but also the 160-voice Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, prepared to a fare-thee-well by its veteran director, Eric Stark.

Eric Barry, tenor soloist
Verdi's setting for chorus ranges from powerful announcements (the men's booming entrance on "Rex tremendae majestis," for example) to passages so soft they were interpreted here, dramatically, as partially whispered. There are significant passages requiring a cappella singing ("Te decet hymnus," to start with) during which intonation remained true. And there is the compact, intricate "Sanctus" for double chorus, in which nothing sounded tangled or blurred in Saturday's performance.

In contrast with many major works for chorus and orchestra,  in which soloists have something of a cameo effect, Verdi's use of solo voices here is extensive. The kind of sheer heft and the emotional range required approaches the discipline and stamina needed for his operatic roles. The ISO was fortunate to land, even with a couple of substitutions since the program was printed, this quartet: Leah Crocetto, soprano; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Eric Barry, tenor, and Jordan Bisch, bass.


Leah Crocetto, soprano soloist
From its calling-card entrance, one at a time, in "Kyrie eleison,"  it was evident that the four were well-matched, an impression confirmed in the moving "Lacrymosa." Such combinations as the women in "Recordare, Jesu pie" and the three lower voices in "Lux aeterna luceat eis" brimmed with vitality and unanimity of expression.

Cooke deserves special mention. In a world in which "mezzo-soprano" is the more marketable category, she is a true contralto. What's the difference, when whatever you call the lady, she has to sing the same notes? It's a certain tone quality, a penetrating timbre, that not only lends gravity to the frequent solos Verdi gives to the lower female voice, but also seems essential to make clearer the four solo lines in the "Offertorio" section. Cooke had the essential sound and the skill to shape it to the music's meaning.

The next most satisfying soloist was the tenor, whose intense supplication in "Ingemisco" demands the floating but emotion-drenched vocalism of a Pavarotti. Barry was more than adequate to such requirements. His diction was exemplary, too, and his pitch sense was on the money. The bass conveyed something less in the way of both expressive and pitch quality — accurate and disciplined enough but hampered by a rather foggy timbre. The soprano, of clarion tone and flexibility, seemed to tire somewhat toward the end of the 90-minute performance, but fortunately didn't fail to nail the climactic high C above the swelling chorus and orchestra in "Libera me."

Still and all, this was the kind of Verdi Requiem quartet that dreams are made on. And the performance overall indicated once again that Urbanski hears everything in a score and can come up with results that allow us to hear it, too. Such is his charisma that not a peep emanated from the audience after the final note —  until the maestro finally dropped his left hand and a roaring ovation burst forth..