Verdi, Guiseppe

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A Somber Shot of Verdi

This is Verdi for people who consider opera a hokey way to tell a story: It's got the big ballooning vocal declarations forever associated with Italian opera—Verdi wrote this just after Aida, arguably his career peak—but little of the turgid storyline, as the text is drawn from the Catholic requiem mass. It has moments of deep, inward-looking orchestral murmuring, but few of opera's contrived "climax" scenes.

And the subject is death, that opera standby. The Requiem was occasioned by two deaths that affected Verdi—the demise of Gioachino Rossini in 1868 and the 1873 passing of Tuscan novelist Alessandro Manzoni. Verdi wasn't a devout Catholic, but he hints at the unyielding fire-and-brimstone absolutism of the Roman Catholic church without dishing the usual stern warnings from an angry God. Where other composers (including Fauré) used the requiem's mystical incantations to bow to an almighty power, Verdi took a more distanced view. He wrote as though confronting the human fear of death. The vocal lines, sung here by the authoritative soprano Leontyne Price and the storied tenor Jossi Björling, are epic pleas for mercy.

This charged performance was also historic: It was the only time Price and Björling, two operatic greats of different generations, crossed paths. Price was in her early thirties, and months away from making her debut at the Metropolitan opera. Björling, the enormously popular Swedish tenor who sings with an unexpectedly youthful demeanor, would be dead within a year. Under direction from Hungarian conductor Fritz Reiner, the soloists transform Verdi's bursts of illumination into riveting music. Even if you don't follow the text, you can't escape the restless, heavy-hearted questioning Verdi brought to this extended mourning ritual.

Genre: Classical
Released: 1960, Decca
Key Tracks: "Offertorio," "Sanctus," "Recordare," "Lacrimosa."
Another Interpretation: Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna, Berlin Philharmonic and Swedish Radio Chorus (Claudio Abbado, cond.).
Catalog Choice: Macbeth, Alfredo Giacomotti, Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala (Claudio Abbado, cond.).
Next Stop: Gabriel Fauré: Requiem
Book Page: 832

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