Conductor Nicola Luisotti, who serves as the Music Director of both the San Francisco Opera and the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, Italy, became the central figure in a remarkable event that has both musical and cultural significance. He conducted a performance of Verdi’s “Requiem” at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, in which the chorus and orchestra was comprised of artists from both opera companies.
Verdi wrote the “Requiem” to commemorate the death of Manzoni, author of the 1827 Italian novel I promessi sposi, which was of incalculable importance to modern Italian language and culture, strongly influencing the drive towards the mid-19th century unification of Italy.
[Below: the Van Ness Street entrance to the War Memorial Opera House, whose upper windows are lit with the green, white and red of the Italian flag; edited image, based on a Drew Altizer photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The San Francisco performance is part of a diplomatic initiative under the direction of the President of the Italian Republic, entitled 2013: the Year of Italian Culture in the United States. Coordinating the Italian Culture theme with the Verdi Bicentennial Celebration naturally fit with the idea of a performance of Verdi’s requiem mass for Manzoni, that would be a joint product of the opera companies of San Francisco and Naples.
Before the performance began, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee and and Naples Mayor Luigi de Magistris welcomed the audience at the filled-to-capacity War Memorial Opera House.
Luisotti, and the Intermixed Chorus and Orchestra
Nicola Luisotti is the musical leader of two large opera companies, each located almost half a world from the other.
With obvious pride, he ceremoniously mixed the 161 choristers (90 from San Francisco, 71 from Naples) and 146 orchestra members (81 from San Francisco, 65 from Naples).
[Below: Conductor Nicola Luisotti, Music Director of the San Francisco Opera and the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, Italy; resized image, based on a promotional photograph.]
Every San Francisco Opera chorister sat next to a member of the Teatro di San Carlo chorus.
Similarly, the two orchestras were carefully integrated. Concertmaster Kay Stern of the San Francisco Opera was the performance’s concertmaster, but, in a gesture of orchestral solidarity, each of the Neapolitan and San Franciscan principal instrumentalists traded chairs after the Dies irae was performed.
Symbolic gestures took place throughout the performance. All artists in the string sections shared a music stand with a colleague from the other continent. Instrumental solos were divided evenly between the two orchestras.
The Requiem at the War Memorial
The single performance was only the third in the 91 year history of the San Francisco Opera (the first 59 years ago in commemoration of the death of San Francisco Opera’s founding general director, Gaetano Merola).
However, as part of the performance repertory of the San Francisco Symphony, the Requiem was heard in the War Memorial Opera House during the decades that both Symphony and Opera shared the auditorium.
[Below: a view of the opera house stage, and the 312 musicians performing the “Requiem”; edited image, based on a Drew Altizer photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The four soloists were comprised of three American artists (whether intended or a felicitous coincidence, each having an Italian surname) singing the soprano, mezzo-soprano and tenor parts, and a basso born in the Ukraine.
The soloists, although each was an experienced performer of Verdi’s operas, collectively represent a new generation of Verdians.
Leah Crocetto’s Soprano
Verdi wrote both the title role of the opera “Aida” and the Soprano part in the “Requiem” for the same soprano, Teresa Stolz.
The “Requiem” soprano was Leah Crocetto, who has shown versatility in the styles of composers as diverse as Rossini [see Stormy Weather, But Strong Performances from Pisaroni, Crocetto, Bardon, Sledge in Rossini’s “Maometto II” – Santa Fe Opera, August 2, 2012 and Puccini [Luisotti Leads Superb “Turandot” Cast In David Hockney’s Treasured Production – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2011].
With the combination of vocal expressiveness and power needed for the great soprano aria Libera me, Crocetto’s dramatic soprano voice blended with Margaret Mezzacappa’s mezzo-soprano in a calmly beautiful Agnus dei.
[Below: in front, from left to right, the soprano (Leah Crocetto, in red dress), the mezzo-soprano (Margaret Mezzacappa), Conductor Nicola Luisotti (back to audience), the tenor (Michael Fabiano) and the basso (Vitalij Kowaljow); edited image, based on a Drew Altizer photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Margaret Mezzacappa’s Mezzo-soprano
Yet another voice of power enveloped in a melodious vibrato, Margaret Mezzacappa was impressive in the Liber scriptus, which is the first real opportunity of San Francisco Opera audiences to see and hear this graduate of Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts singing onstage.
(She had appeared as the Voice of Antonia’s Mother earlier in the year [Matthew Polenzani Triumphs in Pelly’s Take on “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2013], in which her image was projected onto a back wall.)
The sweetness in Mezzacappa’s voice was evident in the Quid sum, miser.
Michael Fabiano’s Tenor
The “Requiem” is a favorite of Verdian tenors, for whom the Ingemisco, arguably the most famous section of the work, was written. Fabiano performed the aria with sensitivity and passion.
Fabiano’s distinguished performance of a Donizetti work [see A Second Look: “Lucrezia Borgia” at the San Francisco Opera – October 2, 2011] has been released on DVD by the San Francisco Opera.
His appearance in this important event suggests, and perhaps heralds, his emergence as a leading Verdi lyric tenor with the San Francisco Opera. [See my conversation with him at Rising Stars: An Interview with Michael Fabiano.]
[Below: the chorus performs, directed by Maestro Luisotti; edited image, based on a Drew Altizer photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
VItalij Kowaljow’s Basso
Like Fabiano, a star on the new “Lucrezia” DVD, Vitalij Kowaljow continued his fruitful association with the San Francisco Opera, making a strong impression in the lowest role in the quartet of principals.
Possessing a mellifluous legato, Kowaljow has proven an ideal exemplar of the Verdian basso [See my conversation with him at Basso Nobile: An Interview with Vitalij Kowaljow.]
The Verdian Ensemble
Every one of the four principals deserves praise for their solo work. Yet, much of their most sublime singing was their work together and with the chorus. The Lacrymosa was ethereally beautiful, as was the Domine, Jesu.
The work’s lyrical passages exhibit the skill at composing dramatic music and arresting melodies as the composer’s works of the years before and after the “Requiem” – “La Forza del Destino”, “Don Carlos”, “Aida” and “Otello”. The orchestra and chorus, whose full power was unleashed in the Dies irae, blended beautifully with the individual soloists in the work’s sweet melodies.
21st Century Verdi
At the beginning of the 21st century, it was a commonplace in some operatic circles to assert that there has been a noticeable decline in the quality of Verdian singing and performance.
Although I strongly believe that that charge can be effectively disputed, the efforts of Maestro Luisotti to focus the resources of the opera companies in San Francisco and Naples with whom he is associated on quality performances of Verdi’s works are being realized.
The investment in young artists in Verdi performances, such as the four soloists in this “Requiem”, will have noticeably positive results.
The complexity of realizing the single evening performance makes it improbable that the event could be repeated.
Thus, those fortunate to be in attendance witnessed and heard something that deserves to be called memorable.
For my conversation with Nicola Luisotti, see: A Maestro of Music and Metaphor: An Interview with Nicola Luisotti.
For additional Verdi performances by Vitalij Kowaljow, see: Legend Making at Los Angeles Opera – Placido Domingo, James Conlon Lead Star-Studded “Simon Boccanegra”, February 11, 2012, and also,
Verdian Back to Basics: San Francisco’s Satisfying “Simon Boccanegra” – September 21, 2008.
For an additional review of the Verdi “Requiem”, see: Radvanovsky, Zajick, Lopardo, Anger Star in Conlon-led Verdi “Requiem” – San Francisco Symphony, October 22, 2011