Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Tenor: SeokJong Baek
Mezzo-soprano: Elina Garanca
Bass: Giorgi Manoshvili
Soprano: Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha
Happily back in the Eternal city, which these days is compensating its biting cold with bright sunshine and, even more important, a significant decrease in mass tourism, I figured that I would get back into my routine by… getting back into my routine, which involves, among other things, spending quality time at the nearby Parco della Musica by attending the blissfully early and wonderfully satisfying 6:00 PM Saturday concerts of the ever-reliable orchestra and choir of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. When in Rome…
In fact, as if to follow up on the Rigoletto I had very much enjoyed in Palermo two weeks earlier, the orchestra had scheduled Verdi’s magnificent Requiem for the week of my return to Rome. Even better, it would feature international star and personal favorite Elina Garanca, and rising star SeokJong Baek, whom I had heard good things about and had wanted to check out for a while. And it goes without saying that the presence of Antonio Pappano, the orchestra’s current music director and our conductor for the evening, was a solid guarantee of high quality.
So, on Saturday evening, after yet another cold but sunny day, I took my seat in the middle of the very last row of the upper tier in the packed Sala Santa Cecilia for what is probably the only blazing opera version of the catholic funeral mass. The fact is, it takes no less than Verdi to compel most people to sit through the 90 minutes of it. And I was feeling very lucky to be there too, the entire three-concert series having sold out long ago. Those Romans sure know a good thing when they see one.
Even before the music got going, we all knew it would be an extra-special evening when a large sign appeared above the stage and informed us that the performance was dedicated to Claudio Abbado, who passed away 10 years ago. One of the leading Italian conductors of his times, he had a very long, very deep and very fulfilling relationship with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. The Parco della Musica even acknowledged this special bond by naming its hanging gardens after him five years ago, and they’ve become a lovely de rigueur stop for any visitor.
And then the music did get going, taking us on a daunting yet irresistible journey filled with overwhelming emotions, glorious melodies, violent contrasts, and plenty of intensely colorful drama, even in the most introspective moments. No matter how you look at it, death’s arrival has to be a little stressful, right? The composition is deliciously operatic in its breadth and tone, and blatant disregard of liturgical conventions, which may very well be why it has been so popular ever since its premiere in Milan in 1874 for the first-year anniversary of Manzoni’s death.
The show-stopping highlight of the work is what is considered by many, me included, the most terrifying—and most terrific—Dies Irae of the entire canon. And sure enough, on Saturday evening, God’s thunderous wrath suddenly filled the large auditorium with tightly controlled whiplashing force and fury, each exciting recurrence of it bringing a new frisson of jubilation throughout the audience even as those episodes were progressively gaining in doubt and torment what they were losing in sheer horsepower.
But Verdi’s Requiem does not revolve entirely around its extraordinary Dies Irae, it also offers many opportunities for the soloists to shine. And they did. An effortlessly regal vision in an elegant black gown and stylish hairstyle, Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca quickly proved that she also has the chops to brilliantly carry out anything she sets her heart and mind on. With her trademark flawless articulation and superbly haunting tone, she nailed her part. Not to be outdone, young and fearless, and equally chic, South African soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha delivered a downright thrilling performance that soared to truly heavenly heights. You go, girl!
South Korean baritone turned tenor SeokJong Baek and Georgian bass Giorgi Manoshvili were for sure worthy representants of the not so stronger sex, and they made the most of their moments in the spotlight with impeccable technique and laudable commitment. Baek showed that his bold transition to lyrical tenor had been highly successful; Manoshvili’s unflappable singing made us completely forget about the dashing singer but unwelcome Putin supporter Ildar Abdrazakov he was replacing. Those gentlemen may not have made quite the same dazzling impression as the ladies did (Who could?), but their commendable contributions were still much appreciated.
Once the whole journey over, it is customary, not to mention necessary, for orchestra, choir, soloists and audience to take a short pause to catch one’s breath and go back to reality, unless of course you have some clueless or inconsiderate jerk who starts clapping right away, apparently relieved that the whole thing is done and over with, and they can leave at last. Lamentably, that’s what happened last Saturday, but the truth is, even this unfortunate ending could not break the magic of the evening. Maestro Abbado would have been pleased.