This year marks the 200th birthday of the 19th century's two greatest operatic geniuses and polar opposites: Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. The Boston Symphony Orchestra has asked the Milanese conductor Daniele Gatti to lead concerts honoring both. His Wagner program comes in late March, but he's just led one of Verdi's towering late masterpieces; not an opera, but his overwhelming — and operatic — Requiem.

This was Gatti's fourth BSO subscription concert. He's a cultivated musician, but almost everything I've heard from him I've found wanting. I'd hoped his Verdi would conclusively prove him deserving of the BSO's confidence. But he lacked two essential qualities for Verdi: propulsion and conviction. His was the slowest Verdi Requiem I've heard — nearly 15 minutes longer than most performances. This could have been an expression of soul-searching inwardness, but instead it dragged; neither moment-to-moment phrasing nor the arc of the whole had a living pulse. Parts got faster or slower, softer or (unsympathetically drowning out the singers) louder. Occasional passages made powerful effects. But nothing seemed connected — or driven — by an inner urgency.

On various recordings and some BSO performances of the Requiem, the four vocal soloists make up a Who's Who of great voices: Galina Vishnevskaya, Jussi Bjoerling, Tatiana Troyanos, Ezio Pinza. That level of singing was not reached this time. Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova's warm, evenly produced voice at every dynamic level always conveyed some emotional earnestness. But none of the others had her combination of tonal beauty and expressive impulse. The soprano role requires a heroic voice. Fiorenza Cedolins's silvery piping went sour when she forced it and thinned out when she didn't. She hit Verdi's notorious climactic high B-flat near the end, on the word "Requiem" (marked pppp!), but the note wobbled. American tenor Stuart Neill, a last-minute substitute, was the one soloist who sang without a score (like the entire Tanglewood Festival Chorus); but his loud singing (which most of it was) had an unpleasant, rusty timbre. Bass Carlo Colombara's voice was attractive enough, but he sang without much character. Verdi's abstract voices express humanity's most desperate wish for redemption and peace, but these vocalists didn't attempt to convey that. Even the energy of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which knows this piece inside out, seemed forced.

Verdi Requiems are rare and should be magnificent occasions. What a lost opportunity for the BSO.


  Topics: Classical , Boston Symphony Orchestra, the BSO
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