Success was all but assured at Yannick Nézet-Séguin's first Philadelphia Orchestra subscription concert as music director: Friday night's program was the Verdi
, a big, bold, and loud piece whose requiem text arrives with fearsomely recurring emphasis on the Day of Wrath. Even when performances are reasonably competent, audiences experience a four-hour grand opera in 90 minutes.
With a quartet of top opera soloists, the Westminster Symphonic Choir, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the performance might well have matched former music director Riccardo Muti's supremacy in this repertoire. But Nézet-Séguin didn't run that race. His approach was unlike any Verdi Requiem performance I've ever heard.
Though he displayed a strong sense of Italianate style, heard particularly in orchestral passages that instinctively expanded and contracted as if they were physically breathing, he reframed the piece's content rather than attempting to project it as forcefully as his elders. In place of the usual broad strokes, the Requiem emerged in a complete, detailed sound picture showing what you knew was there but never heard altogether in a single performance. No extraneous sound crowded the piece's events.
How that worked: The Westminster choristers' young voices lacked the force to truly compete with the orchestra in the "Dies Irae" passages, so the low-vibrato textures had a clarity that was wonderful in the quiet passages and, elsewhere, painted a remarkable harmonic cross-section of the piece, revealing natural hues from a composer not known for coloristic astuteness. Only the "Sanctus" didn't work: The fugal writing was too slithery to be clear.
But passages whose value is mainly rhythmic had extra buoyance. The muscle of the orchestra's string section was felt more covertly than heard. Even the trumpets that announced the Last Judgment from various positions around Verizon Hall were played for tone rather than force. Vocal soloists were all middleweight Verdians, no blunderbusses; the most radical casting was Mikhail Petrenko, who is listed as a bass but was a more baritonal departure from the woollier voices usually heard in this work.
The splendid mezzo-soprano Christine Rice lacked a bit of temperament. But in his first U.S. appearance since 2009, tenor Rolando Villazon, emerging from a recent performing hiatus, delivered an impressive calling card: He sang his opening "Kyrie" in a single breath. If anything, his low notes were a tad weak; perhaps he's still working the music into his voice. But the good news is that his voice has more character than ever and just as much splendor.
The evening's star was Marina Poplavskaya, whose every phrase felt like a personal confession, even bordering on speech-song at times for rhetorical emphasis. High notes were just fine - as was the appropriately severe dignity of her presence.
So often when promising young conductors rise to the top orchestral echelon, their music-making becomes safe, even corporate. The opposite seems to be happening with Nézet-Séguin, whose musical imagination grows noticeably bolder by the year. With any luck, his tenure here will create anything but a musical museum that reaffirms what the audience already knows. I want him to rock my boat and make Philadelphia a place where singular things consistently happen, as they did Friday night.