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April 4-10, 2007

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Gigi Mitchell Velasco

Voice control: Gigi Mitchell Velasco took a vocal turn with Symphony Silicon Valley in a performance of Verdi's masterwork.

Verdi Subdued

Symphony San Jose's take on Verdi's Requiem mutes the drama

By Scott MacClelland

AS PRODUCTIONS of Verdi's great "Manzoni" Requiem go, the one heard Sunday afternoon at the California Theatre by Symphony Silicon Valley was unusually subdued. That is not a word one associates with a composer whose repertoire dominated the opera stage for the better part of a century and continues as a major presence right up to the present. If the Requiem is not technically an opera, try telling that to all the Italian opera lovers who put it at the top of their desert-island lists. Indeed, for its explosive choral and orchestral writing, it is held as the antithesis of subdued among Verdi's works. And in fact, the chorus, Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale (previously the San Jose State University Chorale), and the orchestra both delivered the goods in terms of power and sonority. Moreover, the quartet of soloists—Lori Decter, Gigi Mitchell Velasco, Christopher Bengochea and Kirk Eichelberger—all came through with flying colors, responsible on their own terms for the most memorable music-making of the day.

The principal reason for a less-than-searing performance was conductor William Boughton, whose pacing lacked the elasticity and consequent intensity needed here. (Knowing Verdi from their own operatic experience, the soloists pretty well took every opportunity for expressive liberties they could.) Boughton's experience is primarily orchestral and his collaborations are top-heavy with instrumentalists. But when words are involved, elasticity of pace and phrase is paramount, obviously for solo singers but not to the exclusion of choruses who, after all, sing texts that demand semantic purpose and clarity—even when choral directors are often known to cut them no such slack. In this case, Elena Sharkova's chorus fell short of that goal. Its articulation was generally poor (with exceptions, like the fugue in the final Libera me), suggesting that the meaning of the words was not part of its preparation. This kind of thing wouldn't fly at Opera San José—who supplied three of the soloists here—where stagecraft always starts with the words.

The spectacle of the Dies irae, with its remote brass choirs à la Berlioz in the Tuba mirum, was perfunctory for want of flexible phrasing and failed to inspire the terror Verdi intended. (It probably would have helped to have the remote choirs in the audience instead of the alcoves high on the side walls that usually serve for lighting fixtures.) As a result, the following Mors stupebit—featuring the room-filling basso of Eichelberger—was hard-pressed to recapture that foreboding. And when the chorus reasserted itself in the Rex tremendae, it wanted a suitable snarl for full effect. Seen as an opera, the requiem presents one scena (vocal scene) after another, alternating between declarative choral authority and personal solo utterance.

Dignity is an implied motive in Verdi's characters, though pride usually drives it, often with fatal results. It's the stuff of Verdian melodrama—literally song with drama—even exalted ones like the requiem, where exaggerated expression stands in for action. The more it is conducted that way, the more obvious its operatic conceits, and the more powerful, even majestic, its impact. Several seasons ago, at Flint Center, the San Francisco Symphony gave Boughton a magnificent performance of Holst's The Planets, the conductor's meat and potatoes. But in this case, he was miscast.

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