Houston — Giuseppe Verdi’s galactic-sized setting of the Catholic requiem mass is often refered to as a religious opera and indeed, his Messa de Requiem has the same DNA as his equally huge opera, Aïda, written just a few years earlier. Thus, his requiem is perfectly suited to a performance by the Houston Grand Opera. The fact that this opera-like piece doesn’t require staging and considering that a few weeks ago the Super Bowl occupied the opera’s home, the Wortham Theater Center, made mounting an opera impossible, the Messa da Requiem was a logical choice.
Music director Patrick Summers deployed the full HGO musical forces on Friday evening to deliver a massive performance. In fact, Chorus master Richard Bado put 120 choristers on the stage, 40y more singers than he used for Aïda. Add to that another 60-plus members of the orchestra, 12 trumpets in the balconies and a marvelous quartet of soloists and you have everything this work requires—and deserves.
The soloists were all excellent and had the requisite voices for Verdi’s writing. In fact, the original quartet at the premiere were the same singers that were scheduled for the European premiere of Aïda (the tenor had to drop out due to illness).
Soprano Angela Meade, who won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2007, regularly sings many of the big Verdi opera roles. She demonstrated the requisite ability to float a gorgeous pianissimo sound and the power to blast a high C out over the gathered forces at tutte forza. She did a fine job throughout but came into her own in the final movement (Libera me) when the soprano stands alone.
The alto soloist, Sasha Cooke, is better known for more modest settings of the requiem mass, such as Fauré’s, but she rose to the challenge. However, something was going on with her and she had to leave the stage twice.
Alexey Dolgov’s bright tenor voice matched Meade in the ability to float the soft passages and still be able to deliver some fine Italianate high notes in the Ingemisco. Bass soloist Peixin Chen is a recent graduate of the Houston Grand Opera Studio and his deep sound makes him as one of the few real bass voices around these days. However, when up against the more brilliant voices in the quartet, his voice sounded a little withheld, but he brought an exceptional, occasionally chilling, interruption to the words.
Summers set a quick—too quick—tempo for the entire performance. His was reminiscent of Toscanini’s performances. Usually, recordings run about 90 minutes but Toscanini’s clocks in at shorter than 70 minutes.
In an era of more opulent performances, Summers’ reading on Friday was too fast from start to finish, but consistent within that parameter. Thus, all the tempo markings were observed in relationship to each other—just all too fast. Further, there was almost no rubato within the phrases and only minimal ritards. Therefore, many times the tempi moved past “fast” to “rushed.”
Most surprising for an opera specialist: Summers frequently failed to breathe with the singers, so as to give the singers some leeway and to be able to match up that phrasing with the orchestra. When combined with the quick tempi, the ensemble occasionally suffered and the singers taking quick catch breaths were noticeable. The exception was the soprano who has the air to sing some remarkably long phrases.
However, Summers is a thoughtful conductor and his reading of the requiem had to be carefully considered. Perhaps it only felt fast because modern audiences are accustomed to more, dare we say, operatic readings.