Surrounded by his vocal soloists and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (not to mention a cadre of video cameras), Riccardo Muti slowly lowered his arms following the quietly fearful plea for deliverance that closes Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem Mass. That is when a prolonged firestorm of applause, cheers and shouts of bravi rose up from the capacity crowd and inundated the performers Thursday night at Symphony Center.
In addition, the sold-out concert was streamed live online and carried by more than 30 websites in the U.S., Canada and around the globe, with websites in more than a dozen countries also offering the stream on demand following the performance.
That was important, because the inner soul of Verdi's great setting of the Latin mass for the dead is best revealed when a conductor is inspired by a large, diverse audience such as the one attending or tuning in on Thursday.
And the fervently dramatic, deeply moving Mass today's reigning Verdi conductor delivered to the masses was inspired indeed, a fitting capstone for the CSO's celebration of the Verdi bicentennial, which had included an auspicious concert version of the opera “Macbeth,” also under Muti's direction.
All great performances of the Verdi Requiem carry a sense of occasion, and Thursday's carried a sense of truly momentous occasion. Muti understands the importance of respecting Verdi's markings in regard to tempo, dynamics and expression, and he also knows the importance of breathing with the singers and instrumentalists. His wholehearted dedication carried over to every musician under his command.
The result went beyond the extremes of terror and trepidation that Verdi evokes so vividly in sections such as the fire-and-brimstone “Dies irae” (Day of Wrath), to reveal the spiritual transcendence within the score. How often do you hear choral singing and orchestral playing of such blinding power, tempered by such lyrical warmth and inwardness? The latter quality is more difficult to achieve in the Requiem, but it is something the maestro has gained after having lived with Verdi's music almost his entire life.
He had a solid team of soloists in Tatiana Serjan, Daniela Barcellona, Mario Zeffiri and Ildar Abdrazakov — the same male voices that had graced his 2009 CSO performances and Grammy-winning recording of the Requiem. Muti's detailed coaching of the singers was evident.
Abdrazakov plumbed the cavernous depths of Verdi's writing for low male voice; he was imposing in everything he sang. Serjan, who gave us an intense Lady Macbeth here the week before, was just as intense and gripping on this occasion. Although the Russian soprano fell short in her ascent to the soft high B flat of the “Libera me,” her desperate pleas for mercy sent shivers down the spine.
Zeffiri's lyric tenor is not large but he projected it well, with fine musicality and clear Latin diction. Barcellona brought a warm, vibrant sound and dramatic urgency to the mezzo-soprano part.
Once again the orchestra and director Duain Wolfe's chorus (150 voices strong) covered themselves with glory. The instrumental solos earned their players solo bows during the extended ovation at the end.
When the history of Muti's Chicago Symphony years is drawn up, Thursday night's Verdi Requiem will be remembered as one of its musical pinnacles.