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Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem Mass among latest offerings at San Francisco Opera
June 10th, 2009
By Father Basil De Pinto

The long gestation of Verdi's setting of the Requiem Mass, from the death of Rossini in 1868 to that of Manzoni in 1873, bears witness to the composer's dedication to literature as well as music. If he chose Rossini to epitomize art as song (I would have picked Bellini myself), he was equally convinced that Manzoni was the supreme man of Italian letters in his day.


It's important to affirm this for two reasons. First, because the composer was always in search of the finest texts for his stage works - he was inspired by Schiller and Victor Hugo - even though he had to put up with the work of far lesser poets. And secondly because Verdi understood the exquisite balance between words and music that was the unifying goal of these two art forms. The text of the Roman liturgy provided him with an ideal vehicle for expressing his musical genius.


The old saw has it that the "Requiem" may be Verdi's greatest opera; it is not that, and of course it is not liturgical music either. It is a highly theatrical composition built on a strong and authentic religious foundation. Whatever Verdi's position on the political problems posed by the Church in his time, he was Catholic to the marrow of his bones. This music attests to that quite clearly, as do moments in his other works, such as the convent scene in "La Forza del Destino."


The central text is the "Dies irae" with its oscillation between the poles of fierce judgment and gentle supplication. The fortissimo opening with its wild runs in the strings and harsh thwacking of the bass drum suggests the Dantean inferno, while the full chorus wails its fear and trembling. The atmosphere of dread continues through the mighty invocation of the "Rex tremendae majestatis" and then immediately softens with the plea, "Salva me, fons pietatis" which continues with the heartfelt "Recordare": remember, gentle Jesus.


This is the key to the whole work. Fear of the majestic judge gives way to the vision of the human Savior, who sat, weary, at the well; who pardoned the Magdalen and the repentant thief; who tended the sheep at his side. The final section, "Lacrimosa," enfolds the tears of the supplicants in a melody of unforgettable loveliness as the Savior is once again addressed as "gentle Jesus." The whole piece, which began in storm and fury, breathes its last into a silence that consecrates the sure hope of salvation.


The Requiem as a whole reveals Verdi's keen sense of liturgical function, the precise role played by each part. The Kyrie is most decidedly an acclamation, with the emphasis on glorifying the Lord and only secondarily a plea for mercy. The tenor's entrance, after the softly murmured "Requiem aeternam" is a stirring, electrifying cry of praise. The "Sanctus" is brimming with contagious enthusiasm; the "Agnus Dei" appeals with gentle insistence for eternal rest. The soprano's frankly operatic "Libera me" returns to the high drama of the "Dies irae" before settling again into the same deeply felt silence.


All this to focus on the performance of this great work in the War Memorial Opera House on May 29. It was a gala event to honor Donald Runnicles as he ended his tenure as music director of the San Francisco Opera. If the occasion was auspicious the event was less than satisfying. Of the four soloists only mezzo Stephanie Blythe was up to the vocal demands of the work. The much augmented chorus was fine and the orchestra responded vigorously as always to the Maestro's direction. He received the medal of honor bestowed by the Company on artists of the highest distinction, which he well deserved.


In the end, Runnicles distinguished himself by his dedication to the music, and the audience came away enriched by Verdi and one of his foremost interpreters.


Runnicles will conduct Verdi's "La Traviata" and Richard Wagner's "Die Walküre" this summer. For more information and tickets, visit or call (415) 864-3330.


Father Basil De Pinto is a frequent contributor on the arts.

From June 12, 2009 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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