If the Verdi Requiem is saddled with some sort of Macbeth-like curse, it lifted long enough for Opera Philadelphia to begin a two-performance run of the piece starting Friday at the Academy of Music with a satisfying performance that showed just how orchestra and chorus has evolved under music director Corrado Rovaris.
Yes, there was an “uh-oh” moment when general director David Devan announced that mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack had to cancel. But her replacement, Jennifer Johnson Cano, turned out to be the star of the evening without detracting from Rovaris’ approach to the piece, which insisted that this is a requiem — not a series of dramatic flourishes.
The Friday and Sunday performances replace the usual tough-sell winter production in the Opera Philadelphia season. The Verdi Requiem delivers plenty of operatic electricity without requiring the usual scenery, costumes and other expensive trappings. As operatic as it sounds, the music has personality but not characters, a strong narrative but no plot.
The Metropolitan Opera pioneered the idea of incorporating this concert piece into its opera season about three years ago, but with results that bordered on tragic. Reviews weren’t good, and when then-music director James Levine left the stage after the final performance, he was immediately embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal that ended his career.
The soprano solo writing has prompted many beginning-of-the-end moments in vocal careers. When Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted the Verdi Requiem here in 2012, star soloist Marina Poplavskaya ran into vocal trouble and now sells real estate. So Opera Philadelphia’s 195 instrumentalists and singers might warrant a prayer or two, though they delivered the kind of assured performance (even the strings had a nice sheen) that might not have been possible five years ago.
Though the Requiem is obviously in Latin, Rovaris had a special feeling for the contours of the language (being a native Italian speaker) that made his phrase shaping particularly convincing. More generally, he was clearly interested in a performance that succeeded more on fundamental expression than exterior thrills.
Of course, the antiphonal brass in the Day of Judgment music delivered chills. But the performance drew its force not from individual sections making imposing sounds, but with a carefully integrated, cumulative sound. One tangible manifestation was watching timpanist Martha Hitchins changing over to softer sticks, creating a rumble that was more felt than heard.
Of course, no Rovaris performance would be complete without one of his breakneck-tempo moments. Here, it happened in the climactic “Libera me” fugue, one of the toughest parts of the piece, rendered by the musicians with some audible labor but no train wrecks.
The tempo did actually justify itself in the larger scheme of the piece, which Rovaris approached almost like a mountain range in which every peak is hugely different from the other. The “Sanctus” fugue, for example, was also unusually fast but in a part of the Requiem’s sequence where that kind of animation was warranted. Rovaris doesn’t often have this kind of front-and-center showcase here, but he should.