Verdi - Requiem

Bozar, Brussels, Sunday October 31 2008

Conductor: Mark Wigglesworth. Marina Poplavskaya, soprano; Anna Larsson, alto; Fabio Sartori, tenor; Carlo Colombara, bass. Orchestra and chorus of La Monnaie, chorus of the Vlaamse Opera.

Remember you must die

I don't think I have ever been quite so shaken by a concert as the Sunday before last in Brussels. Since then I've spent over a week thinking about it on and off (I was also busy in India), trying to pin down what it was that had some people literally in tears at the end.

Verdi's Requiem is often associated with deluxe performances: great conductors, great soloists (with the soprano and alto in sumptuous evening gowns, big hair and big jewellery), great orchestras. The result is a glittering musical event, but the glamour and gloss perhaps put a comforting distance between ourselves and the work. Mark Wigglesworth is not Karajan or Abbado, his young soloists, in plain black, are not yet Flemings and Domingos and the orchestra of La Monnaie is a hardworking, highly professional pit band, not the VPO or BPO. This, I think, explains in part the immediacy of this performance: though it was on the usual scale (with two choruses, not one) and so couldn't be called intimate, here were the familiar Brussels forces playing for their regulars in a way that brought the work closer to us all.

Secondly, Wigglesworth's approach to the Requiem was one suited to his forces: a huge dynamic range, from a very quiet start to a crashing, furious Dies irae, but otherwise brisk, no-nonsense Verdi, no fancy phrasing, no messing about with the tempi, intensely human in the gentler passages but starkly matter-of-fact in its underlying message: for all the pleading, there is no hope.

The four soloists were all relatively "early-career", not yet household names. Anna Larsson is a (towering) Mahlerian contralto, probably best known for her Gaea opposite Renee Fleming's Daphne. Fabio Sartori is a (vocally) mid-weight tenor now singing Rodolfo and Werther, who thankfully sang without sobbing. Carlo Colombara is a typical Verdi bass, already singing Philip II, that I singled out in La Forza last June ("... bass Carlo Colombara, the Verdian voice of the show, really").

But the most remarkable performance came from the 30-year-old Marina Poplavskaya. With this Cassandra-like soprano (who has something of the seriousness and sincerity and look of the late Lorraine Hunt about her), Verdi's work became more Greek tragedy than Christian grovelling. The Libera me was a harrowing tour de force and she panted out a terror-stricken Tremens factus sum ego in a way that made it quite clear that any prayers for liberation from eternal death would go unheard, as there is no-one to hear them.

An unexpectedly grim message for a Sunday afternoon in Brussels, but I think it explains the tears.


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