Opera Philadelphia’s presentation of the Verdi Requiem

Although retired since 2014, I still relish opportunities to teach, write, and share opinions.

On Sunday afternoon, February 2, 2020, Opera Philadelphia presented the second and last performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem.

Opera Philadelphia last performed Verdi’s Requiem in 1986. Although there have been many changes over 34 years, 15 orchestra members and one chorister remained to perform it again. There were two performances at Philadelphia’s jewel of an opera house, the Academy of Music, on January 31 and a packed house for the stormy afternoon of February 2, 2020.

Onstage were 195 artists as choristers, musicians, and soloists. Both emotionally riveting performances were sold out events, and with good reason. It is a stupendous undertaking without characters, costumes, or plot. Based upon the Latin Catholic Mass for the Dead, this remains a landmark in musical history as well as an overwhelming musical experience.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was an established star when he wrote his Requiem. The reason he wrote this Requiem(1874) was to honor the memory of recently deceased Italian patriot, poet, and writer Giuseppe Manzoni. From the first performances, this has been an acknowledged masterpiece.

You innocently took your seat, only several rows from the stage, seeing the multitude of people on stage before you. With the Dies Irae, you fell under a spell, You saw Jacob’s Ladder, with heavenly multitudes moving from heaven to earth, and back again, not just the choir, soloists, and musicians. The Academy of Music was Bethel, The House of God. The four soloists were archangels, perhaps flaming seraphs, announcing their presence with trumpets stationed antiphonally around the theatre. The hysterical soprano shouting “Save me! Save me from eternal Death!” (the Libera Me) segued to a calm, restful, serene acceptance. It brings to your mind the ecstatic transverberation of Saint Teresa by Bernini. Was it the lips of a dozen lovers caressing your neck, ears, chest, shoulders, and cheeks, or merely the music? Your reverie broke, and you were again in Philadelphia.

Whenever the Verdi Requiem is performed, it is an occasion. This afternoon was no exception. At the eleventh hour the mezzo soprano soloist scheduled to sing took ill, and a fearless artist took her place to magnificent effect. Jennifer Johnson Cano was superb. Ms. Johnson Cano provided ample chest register while fearlessly attacking the high-lying writing to dazzling effect. Recollections of Borodina or Gubanova leapt to mind, while Jennifer Johnson Cano was very much her own fully matured artist. Philadelphia hopes to see more of this fine artist. The other soloists included the ravishing Leah Crocetto who at the climactic scena Libera Me concluding the work exhibited religious zeal magnified by physical ecstasy in paroxysms of religious joy. Tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson appeared apprehensive, perhaps grief-stricken throughout, all blood having drained from his ashen face while delivering plangent singing. In-Sung Sim was the outwardly sedate Bass who sung well and to great effect. The orchestra and choir surpassed all expectations under the sure hand of Maestro Corrado Rovaris. At the conclusion of this draining, yet elating experience, Maestro Rovaris appeared cool as a cucumber, perhaps ready even to launch into an entire La Forza del Destino.

This was a thrilling, unforgettable Requiem from Opera Philadelphia.

Opera Philadelphia’s season continues with Madame Butterfly, April 24 – May 3. For information and to purchase tickets call 215-732-8400 or visit www.operaphila.org .

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