Last night, Rafael Fru hbeck de Burgos opened the opera season at the Kennedy Center several weeks early. He conducted not in the Opera House but in the Concert Hall with the National Symphony Orchestra, the Choral Arts Society and four outstanding soloists.
The music was Verdi's Requiem, which can be treated as a sort of oratorio. But last night it was an opera without costumes or scenery, an opera whose central incident is the end of the world. The performance was superbly controlled and brilliantly effective. This week's program will be remembered by many NSO patrons as the highlight of the fall season.
English-speaking audiences are not always totally comfortable with Verdi's Requiem, and a few members of the audience left early last night, giving Verdi a distinction usually reserved for contemporary composers. This reflects a problem as old as the music, which was first performed 110 years ago: the Requiem lacks many of the ingredients that usually attract opera fans, but its operatic style can disturb lovers of religious music -- particularly in a culture whose idea of religious music is based on Handel's "Messiah."
In Verdi's own culture, two years after his death, Pope Pius X issued a decree (Tra le sollicitudini) that almost reads like a bill of attainder against the Requiem; it forbids the use of drums and "all the instruments which are too noisy or nimble" in church, and orders that "nothing profane, vulgar, or theatrical be allowed, nothing that is reminiscent of theatrical pieces." That's the Requiem.
Fru hbeck does not try to tame that style; he revels in its vigorous rhythms, extraordinary dynamic range and startling orchestral statements. But not all of the impressive moments are loud, fast and vigorous. At the beginning, Verdi calls for the chorus to sing "as softly as possible," and last night the Choral Arts Society seemed to begin even more softly than that -- the merest whisper like the first touch of gray in a sky before sunrise. There was also, throughout, a rare sense of dynamic perspective so that the solo voices stood out clearly from the chorus when all were singing parts marked pianissimo. Still, there was a special glory in the big moments of the "Dies irae," the "Sanctus" for two choruses and the amazing "Libera me," which is both profound and spectacular, providing a true recapitulation and climax after all the vivid moments that have preceded it.
One could quibble -- for example, about the prominence of soprano tone in some fortissimo choral passages -- but in sum this performance was a triumph not only for Fru hbeck and the chorus but for Norman Scribner, the director of the Choral Arts Society.
The soloists were Margaret Price, Florence Quivar, Carlo Bergonzi and Justino Diaz. It would be hard to find a better vocal quartet for this music anywhere in the world. Quivar and Diaz may have stood out slightly above the others, not only in the quality but the quantity of their singing. But Price was magnificent in the stylistically and musically demanding solo of the "Libera me," and Bergonzi rose to the challenges of the "Ingemisco" in excellent style. Special mention should be given to the trumpeters in the "Tuba mirum," but the whole orchestra performed with the special quality Fru hbeck usually evokes.