"Too loud, too vulgar, too Italian," is how one critic memorably dismissed Verdi's Requiem. So what would Gianandrea Noseda, the BBC Philharmonic's principal conductor, make of his compatriot's great work at the end of his first Manchester season?
In fact, he brought a refreshing Italian energy and a dramatic sweep to the performance. Attentive to detail, he offered vivid imagery in its range of colour, from explosive sonorities to eerie whispers, as well as structural coherence. There was no doubt, though, that his eye and ear were focused firmly on life rather than death.
Verdi's musical pictures - of the prospect of being chewed up by a lion, or thrust into a deep pit, or swallowed in the pains of hell - were painted with dramatic intensity. Yet the opening plea for eternal rest had an enigmatic uncertainty, as if in doubt that the prayer would be answered, riddles solved, questions answered - a reflection, perhaps, of Verdi's own religious ambivalence. Or maybe everyone was just a shade nervous.
Some of the score was powerfully projected, especially the volatile "Dies Irae". Elsewhere, Noseda toned down his forces to an exquisite softness. The BBC Philharmonic strings had all the expressive weight one could wish for, the woodwind added burnished colour and the brass, on and off stage, had an unassailable authority. The joint forces of the Leeds and Sheffield Philharmonic choruses sang with heart and responsiveness, especially in the nimble "Sanctus".
Perhaps because she alone was singing without a score, rising to her feet very much in her own time, Barbara Frittoli added a personal element to the evening. She sang with unaffected eloquence, however, evoking Saint Michael and the holy light with a radiant luminosity, her gleaming notes and floated entries giving an ethereal dimension to the performance. Of the other soloists - not an entirely integrated ensemble, it must be said - the American tenor Hugh Smith brought a refined and sensitive shading to the "Ingemisco", while the Russian bass Sergei Alexashkin fanned the fiery flames of the "Confutatis maledictis" with a scary fury.
As to whether or not Verdi's Requiem is merely an "opera in ecclesiastical costume": as far as the mezzo-soprano Luciana D'Intino was concerned, the answer was surely an unequivocal yes. She chanted "Nil inultum remanebit" with such forceful effect that you had no difficulty believing her chilling prophecy that nothing would remain unavenged.
By the final "Libera me" the church vestments were well and truly discarded, whiffs of greasepaint replaced the incense, and Barbara Frittoli seemed as genuinely seized with trembling and fear as any of Verdi's theatrical heroines begging for deliverance from their fate.Reuse content