I never thought I’d see the day when Giuseppe Verdi and Benjamin Britten would battle it out for musical superiority but that’s exactly what happened in Los Angeles this year. The Verdi Bicentennial and the Britten Centennial went head to head and I can’t say I was pleased with the outcome.
The ghost of Peter Hemmings, our first intendant and a huge Britten promoter, apparently still haunts the Music Center downtown abetted by regular séances hosted by our Music Director James Conlon. A comprehensive year-long Britten festival was arranged with events stretching on into the Malibu sunset; meanwhile, Verdi was “honored” with a single opera production,The Two Foscari . And yes, we’re that bush league that they still translate everything into English here for publicity purposes, thanks for asking.
I’m glad to say stronger heads prevailed over at the Los Angeles Philharmonic offices and we were given summer concert performances at the Hollywood Bowl of both Aida and the great Messa da Requiem conducted by our resident Wunderkind, Gustavo Dudamel.
I was lucky enough to attend this Requiem performance and it was printed in a variety of sources at the time that this was being filmed for release by Deutsche Grammophon, our conductor’s home label. I thought certainly as a counter to the performance Decca just brought out from La Scala. I’m sure it’s an interesting tale how it ended up published by our friends at C-Major and released with very little fanfare last month. Fear not, it’s a nearly flawless performance with a great amount of vitality and passionate execution.
Maestro Dudamel, or “The Dude” as many here call him, isn’t the first mystic to lead the LA Philharmonic—that turban goes to Carlo Maria Giulini—but he may be the most powerful. He not only conducts Verdi’s music, he conducted the audience’s silence that night as well. A hush like I have never heard before fell over that little hillside and the spell was only broken by his arms settling slowly to his sides 90 minutes later. Compared to the behavior of the drunken rabble at most Bowl events it can be counted as the evening’s first miracle.
Dudamel opened with an intensity of such quiet sinew it was almost as if the 18,000 seat amphitheatre has been turned into a chamber salon. As the soloists joined the chorus and the first fortes push out from the bandshell it was as if the curtains parted on a Cinerama movie screen. The whole evening went like that: first being pulled in for a significant detail and then being washed out on a tidal wave of Verdi’s “crazy opera,” as Dudamel calls it. I’m happy to say that the excellent video direction of Michael Beyer actually manages to capture this constantly changing focus beautifully.
An uncommonly strong quartet was assembled—I’m sure more than partially because of recording contracts. Basso Ildebrando D’Arcangelo chose wisely not to play the voice of our Lord and instead gives a strong, human sized performance with floods of full, rich, lyric tone and lovely nuance when necessary. His anchor is strong enough to bring the rest of the soloists in line behind him, some more than others.
Vittorio Grigolo isn’t the only tenor to ever throw himself bodily at his opening line in the Kyrie and it is a challenge that almost defeats him. He gives a good, if small scaled, performance which is hindered by the fact that he really can’t sing an honest classical line because his technique is just a bag of tricks. He sounds very much the “Lamb of God” here due to his near incessant bleating which he cleverly manages to repurpose as a trill later on when required. He’s young enough that the seams in his technique aren’t completely obvious yet. His movie star tan and white dinner jacket do give him the appearance at times of having wedged in a funeral in between cocktail parties.
Verdi really gives the mezzo the majority of the heavy lifting and I was intrigued by the casting of Michelle de Young. Having only had the pleasure of hearing her in Berlioz and Wagner (she sang an astonishing four roles in three Ring operas here in 2010) up until now I wasn’t sure what kind of a Verdian she’d be. She was fresh off of a very well received Amneris from the week prior under Dudamel and was obviously more than equal to the task. Her tone here is extremely warm and and she offers a beautiful cantabile line in her solos each of which is a pleasure to the ear. Preternaturally tuned to her colleagues at all times she’s in equal parts of command and support in duet and ensembles, especially fine in the “Agnus Dei.”
But Verdi saves the drama and the final moments for the soprano and Julianna di Giacomo began the evening by unfurling the first of an unending string of floated high notes the quality of which I haven’t heard in a very long time. It’s a Verdi lyric soprano just on the first bloom and the grand phrasing is there with the power in reserve. Her clear, fresh tone has all the soprano cream on the top you could possibly want. Exceptional poise all the way to the peak of the voice and she has a naturally plaintive quality that made her “Libera me” uncommonly effective. Her final parlandos are rightfully chilling.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale fully lived up to its name by turning in a stunning performance full of rich tone at any dynamic level and diction clear enough to take dictation from. I will admit to being more than a little surprised at the level of their contribution. The highlight was an uncommonly glowing “Sanctus” that didn’t start from a place of preciousness for a change and became warmer and more sweeping at its finale without ever sounding rushed. Bravi!
Dudamel conducts as a man possessed and in some respects he is. The camera reveals him using such economy of gesture he looks more like his massaging the music than conducting it. His love for this piece is completely evident and his interpretation is always on a human level, never falling into the trap of grandiosity. (Anyone can make the timpani go bang in the “Dies irae” but Verdi, of course, was a nonbeliever so his Requiem is more about earthly drama than the one supposedly happening in the heavens.) One critic here called this performance an important page in this conductor’s maturation and I can only agree.
The Blu-ray disc sound and picture are magnificent and really help to give this performance a serious sense of occasion.