Donizetti’s Messa da Requiem Baroque and Di Capella Music Unwrapped

Nélida Nassar   04.06.2016

While the world of architecture and design was mourning the untimely passing away of Dame Zaha Hadid, the first woman winner of the Pritzker Prize dubbed gravity-defying visionary and formidable, controversial and uncompromising architect. The Antonine University Choir, with fifty-five musicians and five soloists, brightened the Jesuit Church of Saint Joseph, Beirut that same evening. What more appropriate considering the circumstance than Donizetti’s Messa da Requiem originally begun as a work in memory of Vicenzo Bellini, this mass was never finished, ironically, not unlike the great architect’s magnum opus. Lacking a “Sanctus,” “Benedictus” and “Agnus Dei,” the work is nevertheless a large-scale (lasting more than an hour), powerful and compelling piece which is one of the composer’s di capella and most important non-operatic compositions.

All orchestrated by the music director, Father Toufic Mattouk who has never been one to shy away from a challenge. He tackles the Messa da Requiem, one of the least performed and biggest, most brazen choral masterpieces in the canon. With the combined forces of the Antonine University Choir, the Lebanon Philharmonic Orchestra plus five bel canto soloists Caterina Di Tonno, soprano; Rosa Bove, mezzo-soprano; Bechara Moufarrej, tenor; Shadi Torbey, bass-bariton; Carlo Malinverno, bass.

Messa da Requiem weaves the tradition of Italian church music with a new style thoroughly inspired by music drama, like that which was to stamp Verdi’s requiem forty years later. More than 650 spectators listened to the talent of the artists alternating solo and choral parts entirely operatic in nature. A word-oriented interpretation of the liturgical text and in repeated reminiscences of the rigorous compositional style. The chorus and the soloists managed with mixed results to convey the number of strikingly concise effects especially in the alternation of the typically Donizettian cantilenas and of the powerfully surging, dramatic choral sections. Particularly impressive was the “Dies Irae” with its vividly contrasting sections, which are nonetheless formally integrated into a larger context.

The five soloists, all enthusiastic and very capable dived into the depths of the amazing Donizetti’s score to bring forth all the vigor of the “In memorial aeterna,” volume of the “Dies irae,” and the lyrical romanticism of both the “Libera me Domine” and the “Kyrie.” Maestro Maatouk guided the orchestra and the choir with inspiration and attention even though at times the moments of pause he imposed between the sections were a bit too long thus interrupting the work’s flow and smoothness. He encouraged the musicians of the orchestra to emphasize the descriptive nature of the requiem and to highlight the many wonderful solo passages. His intention was “to show that the text is clearly built in the music and the cry of every human being for God to be delivered from eternal death in “libera me” remains the same cry coming from within each person.”

Even though the music written for the female voices was brief and nimble, the Italian soprano Caterina Di Tonno mature dramatic voice, expressive in the high range, gave an integrated musical interpretation. Beside her, mezzo-soprano Rosa Bove showed distinct musicality. Her very first phrase stood out with a pithy, well-rested, large-scale timbre combined with warm expressiveness. Lebanese tenor Bechara Moufarrej brought animated declamation and bright tone to his different parts. Shadi Torbey, bass-bariton winner of many international operatic competitions and numerous appearances at renowned opera houses showed a voice of exceptional clarity in its upper register an attribute much cherished in Baroque music making. He interpreted his declamations with attention to the formation of phrases, expressive directness and, where necessary, drama.

The bass Carlo Malinverno, summoned a beautiful, deep voice and an imposing stature. An artist with really special vocal qualities, which hopefully he will continue to cultivate and evolve. The choir performed its parts more or less consistently with some raucous and obstreperous intonations, while the orchestra (Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra), offered a convincing and fine accompaniment even if at times it overwhelmed the soloists by its soaring sounds. Maestro Maatouk led the score with adequate knowledge and respect for the musical text. He supported the singers with real tempi, style and interest. He planned an interpretation where the dramatic feeling’s rhythm was singled out and held the public’s interest undiminished until the end.

The Messa da Requiem captured the viewers’ attention by its intensity. The involvement of each choir and orchestra’s member was impressive in itself as one felt privileged to share in its profound and romantic dramatization. Besides having talent, each of the singers on stage that night was there for the love of music. They chose to give body and soul, with determination and rigor, to share their passion for singing to the hundreds of spectators that came to listen to them.

We wish the conductor and the University Antonine Choir great success on their upcoming performance of the same Messa da Requiem at the San Carlo Theatre in Naples, Italy on November 6, 2016. It will be the first time that a Lebanese choir, in this instance the Antonine University, will perform in collaboration with the choir of Teatro San Carlo – the oldest opera house in Europe – and with the opera house’s orchestra, the soloists are yet to be selected. This promise to be quite an accomplishment.