Many have asked the most pointed and ironic of questions: is Verdi's Requiem his greatest opera? With a distance of 139 years, the space of one entire century, and the contemporary reevaluation of historic religious motivations, the answer seems to be -- Yes. But, that "yes" is a bit complicated.
The anti-Verdi (and pro-Wagnerian) critic and conductor, Hans von Bulow, in a fit of obvious jealous pique, wrote a piece for the Allgemeine Zeitung one day before the Requiem's first performance: "...tomorrow will see at the Church of St. Mark, Milan, decked out like a theater for the event, a monster performance of Verdi's requiem conducted, exceptionally, by the composer himself ... His latest opera in ecclesiastical garb will then be exposed to public admiration at La Scala for three evenings in succession..."
Opinion of the time agreed that von Bulow had only appeared foolish by remarking on an event and a work he had not even heard. In fact, von Bulow did not hear the work performed for many years. But when he did, he is reported to have written to Verdi, declaring the work great and begging the composer's forgiveness for his remarks in print. Verdi responded "... who knows? Perhaps you were right the first time!"
Clearly, Verdi's Requiem is operatic--wrapped within its seven movements are the instrumental textures that are typically Verdi and emotions that only drama and theatre can provide. For contemporary audiences and for those like the agnostic Verdi of 1874, there is certainly nothing wrong with that. After all, he was genuinely celebrating a human being that he admired with great music, not gratuitously praising a God that he probably did not.
The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra's performance last weekend left no doubt of the theatrical underpinnings--in a performance that succeeded brilliantly in many categories, but sadly fell short in others. At the top of the list, was the orchestra itself, which, with a few exceptions, was crisply accurate, impressively cohesive, and kept in a warm balance by Maestro Lucas Richman. Also, impressive was the remarkably crisp diction and sensitivity to dynamics of the Knoxville Choral Society, all the more impressive when one considers the size (150+) of the age-diverse group.
Among the four soloists, soprano Cherie Valaray unfortunately appeared to be under the weather. Even before a badly cracked high-note in the final "Libera me" in the Friday evening performance, she seemed tentative, uncomfortable, and incapable of the power that Verdi had required in the spinto soprano part. Bass-baritone Stephen Morscheck, however, was magnificent, his enticingly rich and powerful bass having no problems projecting with clarity from the apron of the Tennessee Theatre into every corner. Contrasting beautifully and brighter with Morscheck's darker timbre was tenor David Katz. I quite enjoyed mezzo-soprano Bracha Kol's confidence, emotional projection, and dramatic delivery in what is admittedly a difficult part. I confess, though, that I could rarely catch her Latin diction.
Just as in other Verdi scores, the composer managed some deliciously attractive orchestration moments in the Requiem, many sounding quite operatic, including shimmering violins, exposed passages for the four bassoons, the flutes, and the cellos. That richly textured, orchestrally interesting Verdi made the evening all the more worthwhile.