SEATTLE — The Seattle Symphony’s three-performance season closer, the Verdi Requiem (heard June 18), seemed DOA. Originally conceived for music director Thomas Dausgaard, the performances lost their conductor when Dausgaard unexpectedly resigned by email on Jan. 3, citing concerns for his safety. With his departure and the advent of conductor substitute, Giacomo Sagripanti, the originally scheduled companion piece to Verdi’s Requiem, Berio’s Requies, went the way of all flesh.
Then the original soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, Dinara Alieva and Ruxandra Donose, bowed out, and were replaced by Latonia Moore and Silvia Beltrami. Moore, in turn, fell ill at the 11th hour, and was replaced by Katie Van Kooten. (There was no time to even prepare a program insert.) With all the substitutions, only the orchestra, tenor Bruce Sledge, bass-baritone Dashon Burton, and the Seattle Symphony Chorale remained.
The all-volunteer Chorale was a major cause for concern. Just a month earlier, after a long pandemic-imposed silence, it had made a poor showing during the symphony’s Brahms German Requiem. Sopranos and mezzos sounded lovely and wispy, but the tenors came across as weak and the basses were inaudible. Perhaps the need to sing through masks, which were only shed by soloists during performances, initially impacted confidence.
The evening looked like a disaster waiting to happen. Which made its success something of a marvel.
Sagripanti arrived with a virtual surfeit of credits and plaudits to his name. Having made his U.S. conducting debut at Seattle Opera’s La Cenerentola in 2013, he subsequently won Young Conductor of the Year at the 2016 International Opera Awards. He has now conducted at the Rossini Opera Festival, Opéra de Paris, La Fenice, Dresden, Zürich, Glyndebourne, Bayerische Staatsoper, Bolshoi Theatre, Wiener Staatsoper, San Carlo, and Hamburgische Staatsoper, with Orange, San Carlo, Madrid, Fondazione Ptruzzelli, and Deutsche Oper Berlin coming up.
The opening of Sagripanti’s Verdi was exceptionally soft and filled with sadness. The chorus sang with surprising distinction, following the conductor’s every intention. Those intentions were signaled equally by Sagripanti’s commanding but never imperious posture and some of the most expressive hands in memory — hands whose myriad positions, marked by unusually long and slender fingers, spoke a musical sign language all their own. As much as the perfectly controlled, soft singing was moving in its gentleness, the Dies irae” was frightening in its power. It’s hard to believe that Sagripanti was able to elicit such marvelous vocalism in just a few rehearsals.
Nor was the chorus the only body to convey what Verdi intended. During furious and violent passages, the bass drum of guest percussionist Blaine Inafuku thundered like the heavens themselves, and the instrumentalists played for all their worth. But when soft and angelic singing and playing were called for, everyone responded in kind. Concertmaster Noah Geller’s duets with soprano Van Kooten were heavenly in their sweetness. Everyone outdid themselves in the exquisite hushed close to the Offertorio.
The soloists, albeit not perfectly matched, were excellent. Van Kooten has one of the strongest soprano voices I’ve heard in many a moon, and was not in the least fazed by Verdi’s demands for forte high C’s. Her lower midrange may lack color, but it has far more beauty than the shallow midrange of a famous Verdi Requiem soprano of an earlier era, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Higher up, Van Kooten’s ability to softly float top notes with uncommon resonance was an extreme asset, even though she faltered a bit at the high B-flat climax of the Requiem aeternamsection of the Libera me.
Mezzo-soprano Beltrami did battle with Verdi’s writing like the best in the grand mezzo tradition. Her dark, hooded, marginally harsh tonal quality is Azucena-like to the core, but lacks the ultimate power of a Zajick or some of her great dramatic mezzo-soprano predecessors. What Zajick could probably not have done, however, was to soften and cushion her voice just enough to blend beautifully with Van Kooten in their Agnus Dei duets. Nor were Zajick’s hands ever as expressive as Beltrami’s. Gesturing with restrained operatic conviction, she made a wonderful impression.
Tenor Sledge was a marvel. When strength was called for, the voice rang out with unwavering edge and security. Yet, when the score dictated sweetness, Sledge’s beauty of voice approached that of the great lyric tenors of yore. His excellence was not lost on the appreciative audience.
Burton’s vocal production was bel canto-like in its smoothness and unforced beauty, and his security throughout the range was admirable. The voice, however, was smaller than that of the three other soloists, and his performance more commanding in tone than weight. Low notes were shallow in impact. There is unquestionable profundity to Burton’s singing, but a Terfel or Hotter, let alone Giulini’s Nicolai Ghiaurov, he is not.
Putting it all together, it was a gratifying close to a season increasingly marked by uncertainty. Thankfully, after many months of contemplation and negotiation, the Seattle Symphony has finally formed a music director search committee, and the process has begun. As much as Sagripanti may prefer to lead a major opera company rather than a symphony orchestra — I, for one, would love it if he’d consider both — let us hope that the sensitivity and command he displayed during the Verdi Requiem again becomes the norm at the Seattle Symphony.