By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 25, 2006; C01
Verdi's Requiem Mass, the product of a man who was publicly agnostic and privately atheist, isn't really a religious work, but it raises all the problems for which religion purports to have the answers.
It is about death, of course, but also the existential pall that death -- the especial nuisance of atheists -- casts on the rest of life. It is full of anxiety and rage, and craving for meaning in a meaningless world. It has no answer other than music, which isn't really an answer.
The combined forces of the Kirov Opera performed the Requiem last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, a performance fully within the agnostic -- and operatic -- tradition. You could have spliced this music into the best act of any of Verdi's greatest operas, and the effect wouldn't be entirely jarring. It was not just a performance rendered grand and dramatic, but a performance in which the conductor, Valery Gergiev, let his cast interact operatically, by instinct, as if they not only knew each other as musicians, but fundamentally understood each other's characters.
The Kirov is winding up its weeklong annual residency, the fourth year of a 10-year commitment. The company is giving its third and final performance of Puccini's "Turandot" tonight and will conclude tomorrow with a final show of Wagner's massive "Parsifal." But it is with Verdi that it is making its strongest claim, in this season of no Russian music, to excellence in all the rest of the repertoire.
Gergiev is a man of extremes, but so was Verdi (in his music, if not his life) and his Requiem is music of extremes. The surprises, last night, were the moments of nuance and sensitivity, from all of the soloists, most of the chorus and often the orchestra.
Opera choruses, which spend most of their existence clomping around stage in peasant costumes or the cheap finery of courtiers, are difficult to judge when heard in a fully staged performance. Heard in the formal confines of a concert performance, singing full-throttle and full-frontal, standing at attention and dressed in formal black, the Kirov chorus is just as exciting, and sometimes more so, as it was in "Turandot" last Sunday.
The opening pianissimo was delicate but fully voiced, with none of the breathiness that some American choruses, under the influence of Robert Shaw's disciples, often produce. The Kirov forte is cheap thrill, as is the astonishing smoothness with which they can scale up their sound from a whisper to a bellicose howl. Not all attacks are smooth, and the men sometimes bark. But in the last movement, the " Libera me ," they made the sound that anyone who loves Russian music had been waiting for all night, the liturgical sound, the sound of a hundred voices hovering in the dark reaches of a cathedral dome looming vast above your head.
The four soloists were well, if not evenly, matched. There was a clear and surprise standout among them. Ekaterina Semenchuk, a young mezzo-soprano born in Belarus, was a late replacement for the high profile Olga Borodina. There was no disappointment. Semenchuk has a throaty, commanding sound in the lower reaches, a tart, pure tone in the soprano range, a strong dramatic sense, and a voice that, if it gets bigger, could be a spectacular Verdi instrument.
It's hard not to be churlish: yet another svelte mezzo-soprano with a gorgeous voice. The world has been producing them in abundance. We're full up. But there's definitely room for anyone who can sing with this much sadness, darkness and chilly fire. Note to the opera commissars: The next five-year plan should ramp up production of sopranos and tenors.
Semenchuk and soprano Olga Kondina worked valiantly to match the sounds of their very different voices. They succeeded. Kondina is a more seasoned and perhaps more sensitive artist than Semenchuk and she has nothing to prove. The voice isn't huge, but it is intelligently used, and when needed, Kondina knows where to stick it to get through the hailstorms of sound coming from the chorus.
Tenor Daniil Shtoda is a promising arrival. Although he stripped the deliciously vulnerable warble he produces in Russian music out of his voice for this performance, a hint or two came through, especially in the "Hostias." His voice isn't big either, and his opera roles have tended toward the light and lyrical, but it has warmth and clarity and it fit nicely into the ensemble. Ildar Abdrazakov, the bass, warmed through the evening, and gave the ensemble a reassuringly secure tonal bottom, with fluid lines and elegantly shaped phrases.
The sound of the massed forces of the Kirov -- the chorus, the orchestra, the soloists and Gergiev spurring them on -- is a bit like one of those flayed-man anatomical models made in the Renaissance to demonstrate anatomy. It's all muscle and no skin, defined and sexy but with a hint of blood and no sheen on the surface. Unlike American orchestras, which often hide their professional indifference to the music under a veneer of polish, the Kirov can make raw and threatening sounds. But never lazy ones. That's enough to keep us coming back.