Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Disconcerted at the concert

I had the pleasure of hearing the Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi (Joe Green, to his pals) last Saturday afternoon. However, my pleasure was almost my undoing.

Verdi wrote the work to honor the memory of the famed Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni. (I have placed a hold request for Manzoni's most renowned novel, The Betrothed, at the local library.) Ignoring the formal requirements of ecclesiastical music, Verdi set the familiar Latin text to an operatic score. Dramatic musical gestures abound, and the work is often given the back-handed compliment of being called "Verdi's greatest opera."

According to the program notes, Verdi's wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, offered a defense of the Requiem's style:

"I say that a man like Verdi must write like Verdi -- that is , according to his own way of feeling and interpreting the text.... The religious spirit and the way in which it finds expression must bear the imprint of its time and the individuality of its author."

This is a fine statement. (Where does one find a wife like this?)

I found the Requiem's music powerful and moving. But if the program hadn't included the lyrics, I could have easily believed that the soloists were characters in some grand opera where a young noblewoman (the soprano) has been torn from her true love (the tenor) by the wiles of the evil Duke (the bass). But then, through the help of her trusty maid (the mezzo-soprano), the Duke's plots are foiled and true love triumphs.

I could picture a scene of this imaginary opera corresponding to each section of the Requiem. The Agnus Dei section, sung by the soprano and mezzo-soprano, seemed to be a song of lost love, providing dramatic contrast to the happy reconciliation awaiting the lovers in the final act. It was at the point, when the last notes for the Latin words for "O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world: grant them eternal rest" had died away to dramatic silence, that I lifted my hands to applaud this excellent opera scene. I came to my senses at the last instant and halted in mid-clap.

You don't clap during a requiem. It would be like whistling at a funeral.