Performing Verdi's Messa da Requiem recently, I was profoundly aware of Verdi's position as a composer for the theatre, a composer of music for the stage. Even with massive forces, he was unafraid, for example, to focus on only two people -- soprano and mezzo soprano -- to sing the Agnus Dei. During such a moment, there is a heightened tension, I believe, because the orchestra and chorus become audience.
Whether you are in a concert space designed to surround the performers (Amsterdam, Vienna, and San Francisco, to name a few), Verdi's Agnus Dei transforms the performance space into a circular event, where listeners engulf the two singers.
Or, to take another magical phrase from Verdi's masterpiece, there is the a cappella music for solo soprano and chorus, in the Libera Me. Here, solo singer and choristers are separated by a quiet orchestra, frozen by what they are hearing. Why? In part, because they are listening to what the strings had sounded an hour earlier, at the very beginning of the work. But now, in the Libera Me, there is a new hush to the music. . . it's in a different key, slightly higher, with new text, but melody and harmony are familiar. And the soprano solo's leap at the end never fails to astonish.
Yes -- Verdi knows how to make a wonderful racket (bass drum banging in the Dies Irae), and for this Verdi has often been criticized for not being more sensitive to the text, to the religious underpinnings of a mass for the dead. But then you come to such moments as those in the Agnus Dei, and the Libera Me, and you wonder how a non-religious man would have taken the time to write such heavenly music.