Monday, July 13, 2009

Florence | Verdi Requiem

They charge a lot of money to get into the Boboli Gardens and there's not a lot of garden to show for it. The formal structure is there, outlined in tall shady trees, stone stairs and terraces, but there are no plantings, no flowers. It is certainly different from what it must have been in centuries past, either as a home to Medicis or as the chief residence of the ruling families of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, as an ornamental Napoleonic redoubt or as a gaudy Austrian belle epoque showplace. How rich they must have been to afford these sprawling acres of gardens and ponds and fountains, and yet, even with them, their reach habitually exceeded their grasp and the landscape is littered with unfinished Grand Projects. (The same holds true, notoriously, for the Capella Medici in the San Lorenzo compound.) Everything has limits, but every Prince needed to create, as nearly as possible, an earthly paradise as monument to his grandeur.

The arena is in a far corner of the Boboli Gardens by the Porta Romana. It is the sort of pipe-and-tarp construction you see at a rock concert, with a short parterre and a long slope of bleachers on a grassy lawn encircled by very old trees. Here and there niches are cut into the surrounding hedge housing weathered baroque sculptures, traditional Roman busts mostly, except for the whimsical trio of goofballs, three grotesque figures sticking out their tongues and making faces, and, across the gravel footpath from them, a pair of fellows who appear to be blown backward by the wind as they try to fly kites; but there are no kites. Above the tall hedges you see a roofscape of stucco and tile, altanas and television aerials.

An international summer festival crowd has gathered for this performance of Verdi's Requiem; you see everything from long black dresses to jeans or short skirts with skimpy tops as well as everything in between. My fifth row seat in the parterre is almost too close for comfort. The crowd around me is well-heeled and bourgeois; hand-kissing is as unaffectedly natural as saying "ciao." It appears that one cell phone is no longer sufficient. A nattily dressed gentleman standing in the aisle wields two, one in each hand. On the cool lawn to the right of the stage the musicians and smokers mill around before the performance. A lone trumpeter stands off in a corner practicing his licks; it is a big night for the brass section.

It is also a big night in Florence.There is a white-haired gentleman of a certain age in a white linen suit, blue shirt, red bow tie, and a red carnation in his lapel (despite the wilting heat). The men are wearing gorgeous suits, the women are wearing jewels, and everyone seems to know each other, including the big, fabulous American-speaking blonde in the front row who I assume is Mrs. Mehta.

Photographers, presumably the local press, are taking pictures of them all and seem to know exactly who they are. It takes a while for everyone to settle down for the real purpose for being there: the music.

To Wagner's complaint that with his Requiem Verdi had dragged the opera house into the church came the reply came that Wagner was no one to talk, having dragged the church into the opera house with Parsifal. But performances of the Requiem, like all the big symphonic liturgical events, inspires a certain reverence. Maestro Mehta made a short speech in Italian dedicating the performance, from all of the musicians' hearts, to the victims at Viareggio and Aquila, and to a Florentine of note whose name I did not catch, recently dead. He asked the audience to please refrain from applause and to leave quietly at the performance's end.

As with an opera, a successful performance requires the best of both the orchestral forces and the quartet of vocal soloists; there are arias, certainly, but this is an ensemble piece par excellence.

The tenor, Fabio Sartore, is a huge man, Pavarotti huge, with a huge voice whose cruising volume is loud and whose loud is very very loud. He sang touchingly in the quiet moments, with his voice under control, but there was no middle between that and very, very loud; consequently the duets, trios and quartets in which he participated were unbalanced, his voice dominating.

The soprano, the mezzo and the bass were more finely tuned, and among them the ensembles were well balanced. Each vocal line could be heard, and their voices blended naturally at delicately nuanced volumes.

I had heard the soprano, Anna Samuil, in Berlin as Donna Anna. Here as there, she is an attractive women with a lovely voice. She wore a diva glam gown and was beautifully made up. Vocally she was convincing and musical, but nothing sent shivers up my spine until the closing Libera Me when her voice exploded into technicolor. On the other hand, the mezzo, Anna Smirnova seemed to be wearing no makeup, was anything but glammed up, and sang with a deeply convincing conviction, eyes often closed. Freed from the dramatic constraints of the opera stage, which, on all but rare occasions, the big moments are thrown to the soprano, in his Requiem Verdi was able to indulge in his love of the mezzo voice, and he gives her stupendous music that Smirnova sang with Verdi in her heart, from a whisper to a full-on torrent of glorious, beautifully pitched sound.

If you ever wondered what a Rafaello angel or stable-boy looked like in his thirties, watch bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk. He is as handsome as his voice, tall and imposing onstage, his instrument as dark and silky as the black satin lapels of his tuxedo. From his hushed "Mors, stupebit," to the urgently lyrical Confutatis, to the bone-crushing climaxes of the full-tilt "Rex Tremendae" he sang with poetry and with soul.

The opening was so hushed as to hover like a fine mist over the stage. As in his Gotterdammerung in May, Mehta incited barbaric splendor from the orchestra, as well as the softest sighs and soaring melodies. He has grown as an artist I have heard over many years; his Gotterdammerung and Requiem, both eschatological extravaganzas, were served up with equal amounts of gravitas and splendor.

There were no bravi, although there should have been; and as the audience crowded out silently, the whisper of "bellissima" was ubiquitous.

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