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An Uninspired Verdi Requiem

Soloists,Vancouver Bach Choir and Bramwell Tovey, conductor

Orpheum, November 13, 2010 

    Performing major choral works such as Verdi’s Requiem, Brahms German Requiem, or even Beethoven’s 9th Symphony can be a highlight of a symphony orchestra’s season.  But it can also be a trying experience, since it is often a challenge to get the orchestra, chorus, and soloists all on the same page, listening to each other.  Most of these performances end up uneven and only infrequently produce the cathartic experience that they might.  So it proves for the VSO’s Verdi’s Requiem this year.


     Since Verdi mixes the sacred and the operatic so enigmatically in the Requiem, performances tend to gravitate towards one or the other.  The problem of this VSO performance is that it could not decide which way to go, ending up somewhat aimlessly in the middle.  If the ‘sacred’ approach was desired, then the chorus was not hushed and intense enough, the soloists not reverential enough, and the orchestral contribution was in some ways too athletic.  If the ‘operatic’ was the intention, then both the soloists and orchestra did not push out strongly enough to achieve a genuine Verdian flow and intensity.

     One can get very excited by dramatic displays such as the massive Dies Irae episodes, as they punctuate the work from the second section onwards.  The basic problem was that not much went on in between.  Much of the music has to be carried by the soloists but, especially in the first three parts, the singing was cautious, literal, and occasionally insecure (in the case of tenor Roger Honeywell in particular).  The two female voices, soprano Joni Henson and mezzo Emilia Boteva, did not match particularly well and often tended to substitute mere sweetness for dramatic expression.  Except for the bass, Alain Coulombe, there was virtually no sense of Verdian gravitas or phrase.  The singing did improve slightly as the work progressed, but there still remained a feeling of plainness and emotional detachment.  It was really only in the seventh and final section that I could glimpse some of the true shape and expressive flow of this work, and saw a more ‘spiritual’ connection between orchestra, chorus and soloists.

     Obviously, this great work can build inexorably from its somber opening to the very end but it needs a confident flow and vision.  Perhaps what I saw here was merely a case of opening-night ‘jitters’; hopefully, the repeat performance can put things together with stronger line, command and vocal imagination.

© Geoffrey Newman 2010