Hallé, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

One of the most intriguing aspects of Verdi's personality is his attitude to religion. Atheist, agnostic, anti-clerical or deeply spiritual - no one is really sure into which category he fits.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Verdi's personality is his attitude to religion. Atheist, agnostic, anti-clerical or deeply spiritual - no one is really sure into which category he fits. In his choice of the theme Verdi: Sacred and Profane, Mark Elder explored some of the fascinating, if enigmatic, clues scattered through his music - as well as several dimensions in between: serious and spooky, secular and sensuous - in the opening concert of the Hallé's Bridgewater Hall season.

Whether or not the ballet music from Macbeth and Otello represents the composer at his most profane, it certainly demonstrates Verdi's gift to conjure the genere fantastico, or "fantastic style". With dark-toned instruments setting the scene for the arrival of the Goddess of the Underworld, and an airy flute evoking supernatural spirits, the gleeful danse macabre of the witches' high jinks was coloured by an appropriately sinister joviality.

The characterful ballet music for Otello, which the composer supplied for the French production of the opera, was welcome for its rarity value. Elder pointed up its wit and style, and the musicians responded imaginatively to its rhythmic jauntiness and seductively shaped melodies.

As if to compensate for the blasphemy of Iago's "Credo" in the same opera, Desdemona's "Ave Maria" is as convincing an example as any of Verdi's ability to express Christian piety. When sung as expressively as it was by Nuccia Focile, it is heart-rending. Her wide range of expression and the voluptuous quality of her voice were equally poignant in Leonora's prayer for sanctuary from La Forza del Destino, the orchestral accompaniment echoing the disturbing, tempestuous textures of the overture heard earlier.

Even though Elder, in his spoken introductions, made a persuasive case for the running-order, it seemed odd to put the overtures to Aida and La Traviata back to back, beautifully played though they were, and to reserve the impact of the combined Hallé Choir and Leeds Festival Chorus for after the interval.

Just as Verdi's choruses, along with the big, dramatic church scenes, occupy a special place in his operas, his Four Sacred Pieces display his infallible musical instinct. Of the two pieces included here, the Stabat Mater tested the precision and intonation of the large assembled forces, but in the dramatic contrasts of the Te Deum, with the chorus divided to maximise the stereophonic effects of the double-choir writing, the impact was tremendous.

Elder drew electrifying performances from the singers, veering between whispering softness and blazing loudness, the ethereal solo voice of Focile soaring above in the final bars. The short, disquieting orchestral postlude left the question of Verdi's religious certainty hanging in the air.

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