> Opera and Oratorio
Messa da Requiem
Lewis, Urmana; Beczala, Abdrazakov; Orchestra and Chorus of the Paris Opera, Jordan. Texts and translations. Erato 50999 93414029
There are two tracks that an owner of this disc will return to again and again. While Philippe Jordan leads a well-focused performance overall, nothing else has the heart-stopping beauty of Piotr Beczala's solo "Ingemisco" and his leading of the other principals in the "Hostias."
Verdi's entire score is full of markings such as "dolce," "dolcissimo," "cantabile" and especially a favorite, "morendo" (fading, dying away) — all insisting on inwardness, intimacy, the intangible — to which the conductor and all participants respond with various degrees of mastery. The tenor, however, achieves a unique lift and glow in his artistic shaping of the long, ardent lines — not without thrilling bursts of hope and anguish — suggesting both the eternal stakes in this drama and the supernatural comfort of faith. When he reaches the plea, in the "Ingemisco," to be among God's chosen "sheep" set apart from the "goats," he seems already one of the elect, by the only test that matters here.
It's true that Verdi couches these passages in a range congenial to most tenors, without the extreme reaches that often tax the other principal singers. Violeta Urmana, now usually employed as a dramatic soprano, addresses the Requiem's mezzo role with grace and strong musicality; a more robust contralto timbre would have been welcome in the lower range, but her soulful performance is persuasive. Bass Ildar Abdrazakov shows similar sensitivity and tonal limitations, his range being a bit shallow for the dire warnings he is assigned.
Nowhere, however, is Verdi so severe as in the diverse demands placed on the soprano soloist. We're told that he tailored the part to a favorite singer, Teresa Stolz, a famous Aida who boasted a uniquely brilliant top extension ("tones … as clear and finely cut as a diamond, and sweet as a silver bell") and staggering breath control. American soprano Kristin Lewis, a frequent Verdi singer in Europe, has suitable warmth, but her intensity is not well controlled or focused in the early scenes' soaring lines. She improves in time for the "Lacrymosa," offering some securely placed high notes, but still lacks a smooth, unified line except at the slower pace of the "Agnus Dei." A troubling beat in her delivery mars the daunting final scene, which demands quick shifts of manner and register.
This solid ensemble performance shows Jordan well in control of the Paris Opera forces. Chorus and orchestra are not just disciplined but vivid and sometimes eloquent in tone and manner. The conductor's taut, fast-paced reading (one of the quickest on record, at seventy-seven minutes) remains focused, not exaggerated, and attentive to details such as the fine-spun transitions, as well as the abrupt breaks in mood. Phrasing is anchored to the words; accented notes are scrupulously observed. Flexible dynamics do justice to the cacophonous terrors of the final judgment, and to the soul's ardent but slender hopes for rescue.
DAVID J. BAKER
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