Rossini's lengthy "Petite Messe Solennelle," which the Cathedral Choral Society performed yesterday, is very likely as guilt-free a setting of the mass as has yet been crafted.
For instance, part four, the "Domine Deus," features a bouncy, confident, aggressive tune that with different words and a little syncopation might work as a major Broadway production number. And the "Qui Tollis" duet for soprano and contralto that follows sounds like a not-too-distant relative of a Bellini duet--although Bellini fanciers might respond in rage at anything so heretical as the suggestion that Rossini, of all people, could write anything so sublime as a Bellini duet.
And later, even when a touch of Bach-like counterpoint shows in the fugues and a tone of Bach's reverence intercedes, Rossini sticks to his formula of cheerful melodies spiked with heavy doses of harmonic audacity.
Such an unconventional mass might only have come from such a man as Rossini, who made such a fortune from opera buffs that he gave up writing operas entirely for almost four decades. This mass, which came from his last years and which he labeled "the last mortal sin of my old age," was composed for 12 voices, two pianos and a harmonium--a combination hardly appropriate for the vast, echoey recesses of Washington Cathedral.
It cannot be argued, though, that conductor Paul Callaway's adjustment of his forces to these circumstances made up for this acoustical disparity. He had more than 200 voices yesterday, instead of 12. They made a big enough sound for the cathedral, but clarity was almost totally lost. The fugues were often blurs. The detail of the two pianos, admirably played by Norman Scribner and J. Reilly Lewis, was largely lost.
What survived best was the singing of the four soloists, well amplified as it was. They formed an ingratiating quartet. Soprano Judith Borden caused the biggest stir, particularly in the high tones of the "O Salutaris," though her lower voice seemed thin. Tenor Stanley Cornett showed an especially sweet bel canto sound, one that one would like to hear in some Rossini operas.