Cathedral Choral Society celebrates Verdi with robust but inconsistent ‘Requiem’

Courtesy of Cathedral Choral Society - Cathedral Choral Society.

Another weekend, another Verdi bicentennial celebration.

On Sunday afternoon, the Cathedral Choral Society, led by J. Reilly Lewis, joined in the seemingly ubiquitous festivities honoring the Italian composer this year with a vigorous, if uneven, account of the Verdi “Requiem” at Washington National Cathedral.

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If the occasion rose above the merely dutiful, it was due to the efforts of Lewis’s chorus, which sang with dauntless power and admirable discipline. The voices thundered mightily in the “Dies irae” while crisply articulating the contrapuntal lines of the “Sanctus.” The cathedral’s cavernous acoustics did, however, obliterate much of the nuance of the choral writing, often rendering Verdi’s subtle word painting into mere atmospherics.

Yet for all the virtues of the chorus, this “Requiem” did not cohere into a compelling musical vision. Lewis delivered frenzied excitement in the fortissimo passages but often failed to sustain tension in the introspective moments. He also lavished more care on shaping the choral lines than on directing the colorless orchestra and lackluster vocal soloists. Only in the hushed conclusion of the “Libera me,” with its tense ambivalence and anxious plea for salvation, did the combined musical forces achieve a real eloquence.

An ill-balanced quartet of soloists proved the weakest link. The best of the lot was Jennifer Check, whose bright, powerful soprano could have used more color and poise. Anna Maria Chiuri exhibited a dry mezzo-soprano with a limited lower register. Mikhail Svetlov offered wobbly basso bluster. Tenor Rolando Sanz struggled with high climaxes and cracked several times. He also failed to cope with the challenges of the tenor role in Verdi’s cantata, “Hymn of the Nations,” which served as the superfluous curtain raiser to the “Requiem,” whose harrowing journey required no introduction.

Chin is a freelance writer.

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