Why did Giuseppe Verdi hate the Catholic Church? There were two reasons, one political, the other personal. First, the church opposed Italian unity, the political cause Verdi fought for all his life. Second, its consolations failed him when, within months of each other, his young wife and infant son and daughter died.
So why did Verdi, a man of the theater to his bones, set the Catholic Requiem for his only large composition that wasn't an opera? Again, there were two reasons — and again, one was political, the other personal. First, Alessandro Manzoni, Italian poet, novelist, and national hero, had died, and Verdi, his ardent fan, wanted to honor him. Second, Verdi had something he wanted to say about the afterlife — to wit, there is no afterlife. There's death, then there's nothing.
Verdi brimmed with anger against life, death, the church, and God himself — and he wanted to tear it all down. How do we know? Because for all its sound and fury — and the Requiem, with its operatic soloists, immense chorus, enormous orchestra, and gargantuan bass drum, bursts with sound and fury — only two tiny words are repeated, alone and unaccompanied, three times each, first by the tenor and then by the mezzo-soprano: mors (death) and then nil (nothing).
Are the performers — conductor Arie Lipsky, the Ann Arbor Symphony, the University Musical Society Choral Union, and the four first-rate soloists — up to the music and the spirit of Verdi's nihilistic Requiem? Under Lipsky, the AASO has become a rarely-less-than-acceptable but also rarely-more-than-creditable ensemble. The last time Lipsky and the AASO tried a work of this scale and scope, they started out weak, got stronger, and faltered once or twice, but ultimately succeeded. Of course, last time the work was Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, a massively affirmative work with a relentlessly positive closing chorale that can redeem a multitude of sins. What will they do with a work just as technically daunting that's also relentlessly negative, a work of screaming sound and howling fury, a work that denies everything, affirms nothing, and hopes only for endless oblivion? The only way to know is to go to Hill Auditorium on Saturday, September 16, and find out.
On a more personal note, the question is, Will Deanna Relyea, the mezzo-soprano whose exquisite performance of "Urlicht" provided comfort and consolation in the midst of the AASO's Resurrection, be up to the fear and horror of "Nil, nil, nil"? Even with her brother, Canadian bass-baritone Gary Relyea, on stage beside her, will she penetrate the darkness?
[Review published September 2006]