Theater Reviews



L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Sunday, Sept. 9

When Gioacchino Rossini died in 1868, Giuseppe Verdi, who held him in such esteem, proposed a requiem be composed by the leading Italian composers of church music, who would each contribute a movement. Verdi, who was closer to being an agnostic than a believer, would write the Libera me, the final chorus of the Catholic mass.

For several reasons, it never happened. In 1873, the death of poet, author and Italian nationalist Alessandro Manzoni convinced Verdi, who held Manzoni as a hero, to compose a full requiem mass, using his earlier chorus as the seed. At 60, the composer felt an urgency that wouldn't wait for a commission, so he agreed to pay all the costs of presenting his "Requiem" at St. Mark's Cathedral in Milan on the anniversary of Manzoni's death.

Church tradition quelled any audience reaction to the piece. It wasn't until "Requiem" was staged at La Scala in concert that it received its due appreciation, and it went on to fame and applause worldwide.

L.A. Opera presented this single performance Sunday as a memorial tribute to Edgar Baitzel, the company's COO and Placido Domingo's artistic partner and close friend for more than 30 years, who died this year. An additional dedication was made to the memory of the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who died last week.

The Dorothy Chandler stage was stripped down for business after its dungeonification the night before for the opening of "Fidelio," then swiftly peopled with an expansive chorus backing the full string section of the orchestra, fronted by four soloists -- the stately soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz and bass Rene Pape -- and Domingo conducting. It was a full house, onstage and in the auditorium.

Domingo seems to hold the sound in his whole frame, extricating the highest and lowest, sweetest and loudest, and richest and saddest music from the massed performers with the merest tweak of his baton. Some of the sounds are so soft that they're almost out of hearing, but even so, how they register.

Chorus and orchestra shared domination of the mass in a triumph of connectivity, so that one never had to try to determine from whence a particular sound was originating. Because this isn't an opera, the words (in Latin), while they might be familiar to many, are secondary in importance to the music and the emotion that soars directly into heart and soul.

The soloists were more than magnificent; even when they were just fronting the entire chorus, each note was distinct and clear. Pieczonka has a noble stature and a shivery soprano range to meet all the challenges. Blythe, a warm mezzo-soprano, surprises with sound that seems to be coming from the bottom of her heart as well as from the lungs. Pape's sturdy bass lends weight and mass to the lower ranges of the total luscious sound. Chacon-Cruz -- a replacement for Jonas Kaufman, who was indisposed -- made his L.A. Opera debut with credit.

Because it isn't "religious" music, "Requiem" sometimes has been decried by purists like conductor Hans von Bulow, who called it "an opera in ecclesiastical robes." Wagner, when asked his opinion, said, "It is better to say nothing."

As a casual Christian, Verdi for many years was not truly granted the approbation of the church for "Requiem," but he certainly retained his title as the greatest dramatic composer for the stage.

Presented by Los Angeles Opera
Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Placido Domingo
Associate conductor/chorus master: Grant Gershon
Concertmaster: Stuart Canin
Adrianne Pieczonka (soprano), Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano), Arturo Chacon-Cruz (tenor), Rene Pape (bass)