Columbus Symphony and Chorus Performs Verdi’s Requiem

Ohio Theatre (ceiling) in Columbus, Ohio, where the Columbus Symphony and Chorus performed Giuseppe Verdi's "Messa da Requiem."(Photo: A. Blight)
Ohio Theatre (ceiling) in Columbus, Ohio, where the Columbus Symphony and Chorus performed Giuseppe Verdi's "Messa da Requiem."(Photo: A. Blight)

The Columbus Symphony and Chorus performs Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem in the Ohio Theatre, March 11 through 13.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts. The chorus master is Ronald Jenkins. The soloists are Leah Crocetto, soprano; Elizabeth Bishop, mezzo-soprano; Michael Fabiano, tenor; and Jake Gardner, bass.

From ‘Big Opera’ to divine choral work

Verdi wanted a break after the premiere of Aida in 1871. Always critical, he admired the first Aida (Teresa Stolz) and the first Amneris (Maria Waldmann), and was satisfied by the triumphant double premiere (first in Cairo, then in Milan) of what became the most popular of all Italian language operas, Aida.

The opera was Verdi’s 24th or 26th work for the stage, depending on who you ask. Two miracles were to come: Otello and Falstaff.

And then there is the Messa da Requiem.

It may seem odd that an agnostic like Giuseppe Verdi should be moved to write an epic, sacred choral work. Verdi’s Requiem is not for the feint of heart. His setting of the Latin mass for the dead plays very operatically, with a huge orchestra and chorus, double brass and glorious word painting.

Here’s a clip of Herbert von Karajan conduct the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath):

Verdi’s inspiration

Two men inspired Verdi’s Messa da Requiem:

The first was Gioachhino Rossini, Italy’s greatest composer, whose career was somewhat eclipsed by Verdi’s. When Rossini died in 1868, Verdi proposed a Requiem mass in the older composer’s honor — each section to be written by a contemporary Italian composer. Verdi supplied the Libera me. The others either blew off or backed out and the polyglot Requiem was not performed until 1998, but that’s another story.

The second was Alessandro Manzoni, the Italian writer and patriot who died in 1873, at the age of 88. Verdi revered Manzoni as he admired no other person, alive or not.

Manzoni’s  great novel I promessi sposi (“The Betrothed”) restored the Italian language to a populace under French and Austrian rule. This great book is nothing less than the finest restoration of Italian culture since the renaissance.

Manzoni was a fiery Italian patriot who used the reverence in which he was held to demand Italian unification. In Verdi’s eyes, none deserved an homage more than Alessandro Manzoni. The Libera Me finale was already written, for Rossini. The rest followed quickly.

Early performances

Verdi conducted the first performance of his Messa da Requiem on May 22, 1874 at the Church of St. Mark in Milan.

Teresa Stolz and Maria Waldmann were among the soloists. We don’t know how they sounded. We do, though, know how Leontyne Price and Fiorenza Cossotto, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, sounded at La Scala, Milan, in 1967:

Verdi conducted future performances in Milan and in London at La Scala. Arturo Toscanini was eight years old in 1875. But, by the time Verdi died in 1901, Toscanini was well established as the world’s leading young conductor. He conducted the Verdi Requiem in Carnegie Hall in 1951, on the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death.

Key moments in this epic choral work

The opening Introit, the sublime “Quid sum miser …” from the Offertory and the tenor aria that begins, “Ingemisco, tamquam reus:” are among the more contemplative parts of the score — as is the “Recordare …” duet sung by Price and Cossotto.

But that Libera me, the finale, is masterful. The mood reaches an emphatic pitch, with the soprano spitting out the notes on repeated C’s (in C minor) “Libera me domine, de morte aeternam.” The crushing theme of the Dies irae returns, and then, in F minor (“the key of reverie mixed with melancholy” – Nicolas Slonimsky) we have a final Requiem aeternam for soprano and chorus.

Columbus Symphony performance

We have a quartet of wonderful young soloists in Columbus, plus the magnificent all volunteer Columbus Symphony Chorus, conducted by Ron Jenkins. Jean-Marie Zeitouni has the great sweep and drama of this music-of-all-music in his bones.

And our terrific orchestra that has weathered many storms and survived, they will be inspired to play Verdi’s Requiem as perhaps, ironically, a triumph as an orchestra that not only survived, but prevailed.

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