Black Friday

Familiarity breeds… if not contempt, perhaps indifference? Usually the longer I know a work the more I look forward to rediscovering it. But that’s just not the case with the Verdi Requiem which began a four-performance run Friday night at the Met. 

Each time I hear this piece I like it less and James Levine’s loud, dull interpretation did nothing to change that despite some fine singing by Krassimira Stoyanova and Ekaterina Semenchuk.

I bow to no one in my admiration for Verdi and would rather hear his music than that of almost any other opera composer. His particular genius lies in creating complex, conflicted human beings whose characterful music thrills and moves me. His realization of the pious abstractions of the text to the Requiem just doesn’t work for me; my mind wanders during all that “sound and fury” except for the hair-raising “Libera ma” that concludes the work but by then it’s too late.

I’ve never owned a commercial recording although I have a number of “pirates” but it must be decades since I listened to any at home. I have dutifully attended live performances and Friday’s must have been my sixth which like my very first was conducted by Levine. My student ticket which landed me in the third row of Music Hall but that 1980 Cincinnati May Festival concert didn’t grab me either as mostly I recall the heavenly voice of Teresa Zylis-Gara.

I note that Levine will return to the May Festival next year for the first time since then with rising star Michelle Bradley as his soprano soloist alongside Semenchuk and Matthew Polenzani.

Though it would seem an obvious choice for the house, the Requiem hasn’t had that many performances at the Met in the past 90 years. After a 1926 run conducted by Tullio Serafin that included soloists like Rosa Ponselle, Elisabeth Rethberg, Karin Branzell, Beniamino Gigli, and Ezio Pinza it disappeared except for a benefit for the Red Cross in 1944, Bing brought it back a few times during the 1950s as a Zinka-fest pairing it with the “Convent Scene” from La Forza del Destino.

Since then it’s been done in the house as a memorial: in 1964 (with the Good Friday Spell from Parsifal) for President John F. Kennedy and then in the new house in 1982 for Francis Robinson and 2008 for Luciano Pavarotti. Although this season’s run of four Requiems were scheduled as a stopgap after the cancelation of a new Forza they too became a memorial. After the great baritone Dmitri Hvorstovsky died on Wednesday, the Met dedicated all four to his memory.

Although no one else has conducted the Met’s forces in the piece since 1965 at the Lewisohn Stadium, this performance was only Levine’s third Requiem at Lincoln Center after the Robinson and Pavarotti iterations. Others have been on the 1981 national tour (a consequence no doubt of the labor strike that year), in Tokyo or at Carnegie Hall back in the day when the Met Orchestra concerts there often included large-scale choral works.

Lately Levine’s performances have been a wild mixture of chaos and exaltation. Friday’s Requiem veered from raucous ear-splitting choral outbursts to raptly serene meditations. The full chorus augmented by its extra members dressed in black suits and severe mid-calf-length black dresses designed by Isaac Mizrahi were seated on rows and rows of bleachers behind the soloists who sang in front of music stands which they raised and lowered throughout the evening.

Levine appeared not to pay much attention to the soloists or chorus which might have accounted for some less than ideal coordination among the large forces. Many movements were numbingly slow while the “Sanctus” raced by in a blur. The entire evening remained stubbornly earthbound with an enormously long, mightily self-indulgent pause at the very end. Overall I found Alan Gilbert’s with the New York Philharmonic two years ago a much more coherent and effective interpretation.

Nearly four decades after his Met debut Ferruccio Furlanetto retains the steadiness and power to thunder out “Mors stupebit.” After a very old-sounding Filippo in a dire Lorin Maazel-led Don Carlo several years, Furlanetto seems to have gotten through that bad patch although his stage deportment during the concert was frequently alarming. He looked utterly miserable, either bored with his face buried in his hands or ill as he more than once pinched his nose during his music. Maybe by now he’s just sung too many Requiems in his 68 years?

Aleksandrs Antonenko too appeared less than thrilled to be there sitting blankly with his arms folded across his chest most of the time after his blunt “Ingemisco.” Although there were some nice trumpety high notes which would have come in handy during the woeful Otello I last heard him plow through, his occasional attempts at dynamic variation went awry particularly in a woozy falsetto for the “Hostias.”

Happily the two ladies were on much finer form. I’ve always admired Semenchuk particularly in a very fine Didon in Les Troyens with Valery Gergiev at Carnegie Hall. I hadn’t realized she’d been missing from the Met for the past seven years following her sumptuous Marina in Boris Godunov (opposite Antonenko). This Requiem marked not only her return but also her first non-Russian “role” at the house; one hopes that it and the upcoming Santuzza are harbingers of more frequent future appearances.

I’d been recently listening to Elena Obraztsova and was struck during the early sections of the Requiem by the resemblance between Semenchuk’s pungent voice and that of her late compatriot. Her very dark, vibrato-rich distinctively Russian sound poured out unstintingly but she eventually reined it in doing some quietly sensitive duetting with Stoyanova in the “Recordare” and “Agnus Dei.”

A few local would-be pundit love to moan about how the Met ignores Stoyanova, although mere facts tend to punch holes in their plaints. In addition to these Requiems she has sung eight roles in the house from Donna Anna to Nedda. I’ve heard four of them and the Mozart was particularly excellent but her overly modest Mimi paired with the prosaic Rodolfo of Joseph Calleja combined for one of the dullest Bohèmes in memory.

Beyond the Met she’s also sung Anna Bolena, La Battaglia di Legnano, and Les Huguenots with Opera Orchestra of New York and a luminous Desdemona under Riccardo Muti with the Chicago Symphony at Carnegie Hall. So New York Stoyanova fans shouldn’t complain.

I read an interview earlier this year in which Stoyanova addressed the alarm noted that she had taken on Aïda. Her reasoning was that Teresa Stolz, the first La Scala Aïda, also created the soprano part in the Requiem. Since she has been singing the latter for years, the Ethiopian princess shouldn’t be considered a stretch. For those who covet a full-fledged spinto at full blast Stoyanova might prove be inadequate but I appreciated the sensitivity and beauty of her singing in Friday’s Requiem.

The high, soft lines floated magically into the house and if the big loud notes didn’t ideally dominate the huge forces it didn’t matter that much to me. She remains a somewhat reticent artist, serious and musical if lacking a truly distinctive individual flavor.

Maybe I just don’t respond to requiems: Mozart’s may be my least favorite work of his and I run from Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem. On the other other hand, Fauré’s is just fine.

Photo: Richard Termine/Metropolitan Opera