Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Marina Poplavskaya: Soprano
Christine Rice: Mezzo-soprano
Rolando Vollazón: Tenor
Mikhail Petrenko: Bass
Westminster Symphonic Choir
It had been a long, very long time coming, but Tuesday night was finally my first concert of the 2012-2013 Carnegie Hall season. And I could not have been in better company with not only my friend Linden joining me for the evening, but also the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra and its new music director, who just happens to have become a personal favorite of mine among conductors along the years, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The icing of the cake was the return of Rolando Villazón, after some vocal problems had been keeping him away from world stages as he was quickly becoming a household name among opera lovers.
For some unexplained reason, I was under the impression that the program consisted of Mozart's magnificent Requiem, which I would never miss an opportunity to enjoy. So it was quite a shock when upon arriving at Carnegie Hall we distinctly saw that, half-hidden by the SOLD OUT sign, we were about to enjoy the equally magnificent, but much more muscular, Requiem of Verdi. That definitely taught me to double-check the program ahead of time to be more mentally prepared, and Linden not to make the mistake of trusting me ever again.
Although I do not typically do any homework before a live performance, I really wished I had had in this case because this beautifully theatrical (theatrically beautiful?) piece, probably the most stunning mass ever written by a dedicated agnostic, is also extremely dense and stubbornly complex, and my only experience of it had been years before and was rather foggy. Oh well, it was obviously too late to do anything about it by the time we entered the hall, so I just decided to take it as it came.
And it came with a full, glorious force that would have made Verdi proud. For his eagerly debut at Carnegie Hall, Yannick Nézet-Séguin had wisely chosen a piece he deeply knows and clearly loves. Under his expert baton, the big, roof-raising hit of the night was incontestably the thunderous Dies Irae, which never failed to make my neighbor jump every time it fiercely erupted. But the quieter moments were not lost to anyone either. The serene Offertorio and the angelic Agnus Dei, for example, offered perfect opportunities for the orchestra to exercise its solid control over the most subtle portions of the journey as well.
After 26 operas, including a few true masterpieces, the Italian master had definitely learned a thing or two about composing for singers, and it openly showed in the superbly rewarding score. The four soloists kept unusually busy and all fared relatively well. The best overall performance came from Christine Rice, who is doubly blessed by a lovely voice and a sound technique. Maria Poplavskaya sang along nicely, if not remarkably, and really came through during her big, splashy scene. Despite some satisfying episodes, Rollando Villazón did not seem as comfortable as expected, sometimes not projecting enough, sometimes overly straining himself. Mikhail Petrenko did a good job with his cavernous and committed singing, an inconspicuous but unmistakable presence.
The real star of the evening, however, turned out to be the fabulous Westminster Symphonic Choir. Whether they were conveying intense drama or more subdued emotions, they displayed an impeccable unity while brilliantly enhancing the score's multi-layered texture.
After all was sung and played, time stood still for what felt like an eternity as the conductor had everybody in the hall hold their breath and, amazingly enough, everybody did, now they had finally stopped coughing. Then loudly enthusiastic cheers and applause poured out for what felt like another eternity, comforting us into the feeling that we had just been part of a very special night indeed. It is so good to be back.