Verdi: Messa da requiem
RenČe Fleming, soprano; Olga Borodina, mezzo-soprano; Andrea Bocelli, tenor; Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, bass. Kirov Chorus and Orchestra, Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg, Valery Gergiev, cond.
Philips  468 079(F) ( DDD)  TT: 1:26:32

January 27, 2001 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Giuseppe Verdi. Not surprisingly, a plethora of Verdi recordings, both old and new, have been issued to commemorate the passing of Italy's greatest opera composer.Philips has provided a new recording of Verdi's great Messa da Requiem, led by an eminent conductor, and featuring a starry cast of soloists as well as the Chorus and Orchestra of one of Russia’s great opera companies.The resulting collaboration offers its share of both pleasure and frustration.

The principal glories of this Requiem are the contributions of the two female soloists. Soprano RenČe Fleming brings a decidedly lyric instrument to music that perhaps ideally requires the weight and power of a spinto or dramatic soprano. But Ms. Fleming sings with such beauty, security, and commitment in this recording that she puts such reservations in the shade. This is an exceptional performance, culminating in a Libera me that offers a captivating blend of dramatic intensity and ravishing vocalism. RenČe Fleming's contribution to this Verdi Requiem is a memorable souvenir of an exceptional artist at the top of her form.

Likewise, mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina sings radiantly and with admirable fidelity to Verdi's dynamic and expressive markings. Ms. Borodina's voice, also of a decidedly lyrical orientation, is a wonderful match for RenČe Fleming's soprano. Not surprisingly, their partnership in the Agnus Dei is one of the highlights of this set. But in truth, there is not a weak moment in either of their performances. Indeed, the contributions of RenČe Fleming and Olga Borodina can withstand comparison with the greatest of their predecessors.

Despite the obvious close miking of Andrea Bocelli's voice, the tenor is incapable of providing anywhere near the requisite heft for such moments as his entrance in the Kyrie eleison, or the climax of the Ingemisco. Bocelli's inability to negotiate the passaggio region of the voice is evident throughout, perhaps most notably in his precarious rendition of the Hostias. Nor does Mr. Bocelli offer anything the way of interpretive or dramatic insight to compensate for his technical deficiencies. In short, a woefully inadequate performance by the artist who is, in all likelihood, the chief raison d'Ítre for this set.

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo's lyric bass lacks the kind of power necessary to give such moments as the Confutatis maledictus their greatest effect. As a result, his performance does not rival such classic efforts as those by Ezio Pinza, Nicolai Ghiaurov (both for EMI), and Martti Talvela (London). Still, the attractive timbre of Mr. D'Arcangelo's voice, as well as his clear diction and adherence to Verdi's directives, provide their own pleasures.

Conductor Valery Gergiev leads a performance that certainly emphasizes the dramatic aspects of a work conductor Hans von Bülow once characterized as "an opera in ecclesiastical garb" Contrasts of dynamics and tempi are played for all they are worth. The recording, made in London's All Hallows Church, offers much warmth, but little in the way of definition. As a result, the contributions of the Kirov Orchestra and Chorus take on a kind of generalized, hazy quality, although the beauty of their sound is unmistakable.

The performance, lasting a bit under an hour and a half, is issued on two compact discs. At the $25 sale price, this is hardly a bargain, although I suspect that few will be dissuaded from purchase based upon that consideration. No doubt fans of Andrea Bocelli will buy this set, regardless of what any critic has to say. And fans of RenČe Fleming and Olga Borodina may well wish to investigate the superb contributions of these two fine artists. But in the final analysis, the factor that will guarantee this release's commercial success will ultimately consign it to the status of a curiosity.

K.M.(May 2001)