Monday, June 18 , 2018, 8:27 pm | Fair 64º


Choral Society Presents a ‘Requiem’ to Remember

The concert brings renewed power and emotion to a piece sang 65 years ago by Nazi prisoners

The Santa Barbara Choral Society’s presentation of Giuseppi Verdi’s Requiem last weekend at the Granada Theatre was dedicated to the memory of the prisoners who sang it 65 years ago while held captive by the Nazis.

The local concert coincided with a performance of the mighty work in the Czech Republic at the former site of Terezin (Theresienstadt), a Nazi internment camp that held 140,000 Jews and political prisoners. The Requiem was sung by the Jewish inmates 16 times during their imprisonment at the camp, after which they were put to death by their captors.

Verdi’s music stands alone as a lofty expression of the composer’s grief over the deaths of two of his friends, composer Giacchino Rossini and poet-author Alessandro Manzoni. Since World War II, it has born the additional gravitas of the legacy from the concentration camp.

The Choral Society, four distinguished soloists and a full orchestra were conducted by Joanne Wasserman. She is a small woman with a mighty baton, who has led the chorus for the past 16 years to its present imminence.

The four soloists were equally impressive: soprano Erica Strauss, mezzo-soprano Cynthia Jansen, tenor Eduardo Villa and bass-baritone Michael Gallup. Jansen’s gorgeous mezzo was especially notable. Her voice is full and flexible, and she has an imposing physical presence to go along with her outstanding musicianship.

This is not to slight the other soloists. Strauss has a lovely soprano and has appeared with a number of regional opera companies in the United States. She also appears under the auspices of the Marilyn Horne Foundation. California-born Villa is a favorite at the Metropolitan Opera. Gallup, a regular with the Los Angeles Opera and other companies, is another imposing presence, underpinning the Requiem’s powerful sections for the soloists when they sang as a quartet.

The Choral Society, and Wasserman, are justifiably renowned. Made up of more than 100 singers, many of them professionals, the chorus is fully at home in a work of this magnitude. Its performance of Handel’s Messiah was a triumph during the last Christmas season. With the Requiem, the singers were backed by a full symphony orchestra, including Mirin Kojian as concertmaster.

Verdi wrote the Requiem after a long career as the genius of Italian opera. His countrymen and the entire musical world loved him for a body of work that included Nabucco, Rigoletto, La Traviata and La Forza del Destino. His Aida was written to mark the building of the Suez Canal, bringing him even greater fame and praise.

Although not a conventionally “religious” man, Verdi appears through his Requiem to be a deeply philosophical and questing spirit. His interpretation of the Latin Mass not only is spiritual, but also equal to his operas in dramatic force.

There can probably be no more powerful “libretto” than the Mass for the Dead. From the initial Kyrie (“Lord have mercy upon us”) to the concluding Libera Me, the text is laden with prophecy, terror and, ultimately, the hope of salvation.

The program notes by Robert Lully describe Verdi as “a man of great spirituality who was not a church-goer.” His wife, Giuseppina, called him “a very doubtful believer.” Be that as it may, his music for the Day of Judgment is perhaps even greater than his operas in emotional power.

Who could not be moved by that final verse, sung by the soprano and chorus: “Deliver me, Lord, on that awful day. Deliver me.”

— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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