From its first performance in Milan’s church of San Marco in 1874, Guiseppe Verdi’s Requiem Mass catapulted its listeners from the solemn cadence of the Roman Catholic liturgy to the raw emotional drama of the opera stage. So it was entirely appropriate for the San Diego Opera to mount, with the assistance of the San Diego Master Chorale, a concert performance of this Requiem on the company’s usual opera stage, Civic Theatre.
Thursday’s (March 20) performance boasted the participation of four of the company’s most stellar Verdi singers: soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, and tenor Piotr Beczala had just completed a highly successful San Diego Opera production of Verdi’s A Masked Ball, and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto was in town preparing the title role of the season-closing Don Quixote by Jules Massenet. The brilliant Italian conductor Massimo Zanetti, who had also just completed his duties with A Masked Ball, led this compelling, emotionally charged Requiem performance.
But it is simply not possible to discuss the fine points of this performance without confronting the astonishing news that was delivered by San Diego Opera the day before the performance—that the Board of Directors, following the urging of General and Artistic Director Ian D. Campbell, voted to disband the entire company in mid-April. After presenting 49 continuous years of grand opera seasons at Civic Theatre and without so much as a soupcon of financial instability reported in more recent decades of operation, this news came as a severe jolt to both company members and patrons of San Diego Opera.
So the angished musical cries of the chorus in Verdi’s vivid picture of Judgement Day, his apocalyptic “Dies Irae,” conveyed not only the terror depicted in the medieval liturgical text but also the agony of the destruction of a company to which the most of the singers belong. Singing with the solo quartet at the close of the “Dies Irae” the heart-wrenching “Lacrymosa” (literally that “day of tears”) brought genuine tears of loss to many singers. San Diego Opera is not only their livelihood, but a unique means of artistic expression. There is no other option in town, of course, and while members of the Master Chorale are not part of the opera company, like the rest of San Diego County’s musical population, they acutely feel the sense of cultural loss to this part of Southern California.
While the emotional quotient of this performance was a bit over the top, the discipline of the 230-voice chorus throughout the Requiem was striking, and its response to Zanetti’s finely detailed, expressive direction proved exemplary, especially in those chiaroscuro textures of the “Dies Irae.” Their hushed opening “Requiem aeternam” trembled with the potential energy of such a mighty choral force, which then unleashed mightily in the “Te decet hymnus” that followed their reverent opening.[php snippet=1]
I thought the soloists displayed their best work in ensembles, eliciting from each other Verdi’s undisguised dramatic agenda, although when Furlanetto sang his “Mors stupenda” solo, the ghost of Verdi’s Grand Inquisitor from his Don Carlos materialized. When Blythe described the wrathful Day of Judgement in her powerful solo, she brought to mind the cunning sorceress she so definitively portrayed in A Masked Ball.
Duets between Stoyanova and Blythe, especially the poignant “Agnus Dei,” and the trio that added Beczala (the “Quid sum miser”) were were more probing and heartfelt than I have experienced in Requiem performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony.
How ironic that San Diego Opera’s back-to-back Verdi performances find the company at the pinnacle of its artistic achievement, and the company’s leadership decides it is time to pull the plug on the entire operation!
Can it be there is nothing that can be salvaged from this company save pleasant memories? How will the San Diego arts community and the wider circle of concerned San Diegans react to this unexpected turn of events from the San Diego Opera Board? This potion of the civic libretto has yet to be written.
We await the response from the City of San Diego and the County of San Diego—both governmental agencies have regularly provided significant financial support to San Diego Opera over the years and have been thanked effusively in every opera program book—to this rash act.