SC Symphony’s Verdi Requiem

By Scott MacClelland

THE LAST TIME the Santa Cruz Symphony performed Giuseppe Verdi’s great ‘Manzoni’ Requiem it was conducted by Mitchell Sardou Klein. That was in the late 1980s; I heard it at Mission San Juan Bautista and have obviously not forgotten it.

Nor could I. My love for this dramatic masterpiece borders on veneration; it figures among my Top Ten desert island treasures. So I came with expectations and trepidations to the Mello Center in Watsonville on Sunday afternoon. I needn’t have worried. Daniel Stewart, his solo quartet, Cheryl Anderson’s Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus and the Santa Cruz Symphony itself have given me a fresh new impression that I will cherish at least until the next time one of our Monterey Bay symphony conductors accepts the challenge.

Verdi worshiped the Italian nationalist poet Alessandro Manzoni to such a degree that he demurred meeting him face to face for many years. Ultimately, the two men became friends, and when Manzoni died in 1873 the grieving Verdi set about to memorialize his hero. He conducted its premiere in Milan in 1874. It is impossible to not hear and feel the influence of Aïda, especially the terror of the Nile Scene when the Ethiopian king, Amonasro, threatens his naïve young daughter with eternal condemnation and exile if she does not betray her lover, Radamès. Amonasro’s fury ignites the famous “Dies Irae” of the Requiem. And, in turn, the spectacular “Tuba mirum,” introduced with blazing brass—including two extra bands in the corners of the balcony—and tectonic strokes on the bass drum. This is hair-raising stuff that shook the very foundations of the Mello. Moreover, its operatic soul, theatrical spirit and chromatic melodic lines sustain a palpable unease with little relief throughout the work.

As with all great works of art, this Requiem is a study in economic means. No good idea is not revisited again and again, giving the whole a true organic inevitability. And in a tradition that goes back to Monteverdi’s Orfeo, c. 1607, the narrative gives rise to personal reflection in the solo arias duets and quartets, as well as on the chorus. Opera continues to excite this setting of the Latin mass for the dead, with startling punctuations, like the tenor solo on “Ingemisco”—perhaps a nod to the famous tenor solo, “Cujus animam,” from Rossini’s Stabat Mater—the sparkling “Sanctus” and the fugal final chorus “Libera me.” (The latter was actually recycled from Verdi’s contribution to an unfinished requiem in celebration of Rossini on the first anniversary of the his death.)

stuart neillThe choice of Michelle Bradley, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Stuart Neill and Peixin Chen, all with major operatic experience, was inspired. Positioned behind the orchestra and in front of the chorus, they were more or less not visible to the rows closest to the stage. But their voices soared over the orchestra to fill the hall. Tenor Neill sounded like he is ready to pounce on the heldentenor roles of Richard Wagner; he’s already sung Don Carlo (pictured in his understudy last-minute debut at La Scala in 2008) and Otello. (Cano made a big impact as soloist in March, 2016, with the Monterey Symphony. Bradley is slated to return to Santa Cruz next season for Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs.)

Don Adkins’ program note tells of German conductor Hans von Bülow, who published nasty remarks about the Requiem in the Allgemeine Zeitung. At the time, he was a champion of Wagner and very much under his sway; Bülow hadn’t yet even heard the piece. But Adkins’ account leaves out what happened next, as quoted from the Israeli Opera, Tel Aviv, program notes: “Naturally, Italian opinion was outraged by the article. But the most devastating rebuke came from that stern guardian of the German classical tradition, Johannes Brahms who said that “Bülow has made a fool of himself for all time; only a genius could write such a work.” To be fair to Bülow, that would soon be his own opinion as well. Years later he wrote to Verdi begging the composer’s forgiveness for his abominable journalistic sin. “There is no trace of sin in you,” Verdi replied with characteristic dryness; “besides, who knows? Perhaps you were right the first time!”

Anderson’s Cabrillo Chorus was at its best in the more reflective and intimate moments, from their first whispered “Requiem,” to their last “Requiem aeternam,” from their comforting “Lacrymosa” to their quicksilver “Sanctus.” But they had their work cut out when the orchestra poured it on in the big fortissimo scenes. The orchestra, for its part, was acutely responsive to conductor Stewart’s fully-memorized, finely shaped and dynamically presented vision. So, not only one of my all-time favorites but a highly memorable one as well.