It may be in form and design a classic requiem (mass for the dead), with every word sung in Latin — but it hits you just like an opera. All the ingredients are there: love (of a different kind), melodrama, terror, entreaty, keening grief and over-the-top musical spectacle. After all, it was written by Giuseppe Verdi, Italy’s 19th-century opera king.
One of Verdi’s heroes was Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni. When that national hero died in 1873, Verdi wrote the Messa da Requiem in his honor, and premiered it exactly a year later. Even though it sticks mostly to the classic Latin texts of the Catholic liturgy, it was written strictly as a concert piece — it would never work in a church. Besides, Verdi was not a conventionally religious man, and probably wrote it more out of personal than religious conviction. And, to be completely fair, he was just itching to produce a money-making blockbuster that he could tour all over Europe and perform in concert houses for a change — and this piece did the trick.
Designed to make a grand and memorable impression, he squeezed every last drop of his overblown but savvy operatic instincts into it. So the piece ends up with a kind of pile-driving emotional impact that no other requiem can match. The soloists drip everything from honey to vocal venom, just as they would in the cheesiest of operas (and, especially in Italian opera, cheese is part of the plan). It thrills and exalts you one moment, makes you weep the next, and then just about drives you, cowering, under your seat.
The cringe and cower factor here is very high. There’s more hellfire and brimstone in this requiem than any other. The Dies Irae section is one of the loudest and most violent episodes in all of music. The chorus screams and shouts on top of orchestral shrieks and bass drum-blasts — truly apocalyptic stuff. And I defy any listener’s spine not to shiver as the multiple remote brass choirs get down to heralding the day of judgment in the very noisy Tuba Mirum episode. You’ve never heard a Catholic guilt-trip wrapped up in such purely terrifying musical spectacle before.
I’m blessed to know this music — and these performers — better than most. Dr. Flummerfelt and his massed singers (the Westminster Choir plus the Charleston Symphony Chorus) performed this blockbuster here in 1997, and I was a member of his 120-voice chorus. Yep, it was my supreme good fortune to sing for “Flum” in eight Spoletos. And I miss it so badly; performing this piece was one of the seminal musical experiences of my life. It’ll be tough hearing it from the audience’s side this time.
And then there are the considerable contributions of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra to look forward to. This music calls for a big, brash, and very loud orchestra. Our soloists will be soprano Jennifer Check, mezzo Michaela Martens, tenor Eduardo Valdes, and bass Alfred Walker. In all, I’m looking forward to a slam-bang performance — one of the best you could hope to hear anywhere.
OK, so I’m biased. Feel free to take what I’m telling you with a grain of salt. But I’m here to tell you that singing for this man and rubbing elbows with the nation’s finest choral (and solo) vocal artists was a real learning experience. It taught me something about what makes these marvelous musicians tick and how world-class choral music gets made. So forgive me if I can’t stop saying good things about them. I’d be worried about it, if critics everywhere didn’t agree with me. If you’re a choral-orchestral nut, don’t even think of missing this.
Verdi: Messa da Requiem • Spoleto Festival USA • $10-$65 • (1 hour) • June 4 at 8 p.m. • Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St. • 579-3100