Verdi's Requiem was a late addition to Los Angeles Opera's fall season, a response to the death of Edgar Baitzel, the company's chief operating officer and Plácido Domingo's right-hand man, in March. A sad spring and summer followed, with the loss of Mstislav Rostropovich, Beverly Sills and, last week, Luciano Pavarotti.
Sunday afternoon's performance in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, conducted by Domingo, memorialized Baitzel and Pavarotti. Still, the afternoon was Kleenex-free. For that thank Domingo, who is an unsentimental conductor. Thank four stirring solo singers. Thank, most of all, Verdi, who was far more interested in the drama of death than its implications.
Domingo's experience with the Requiem is long and rich. As a young tenor on the rise, he recorded it with Leonard Bernstein in London in 1970. A DVD of an extraordinarily dramatic live performance in St. Paul's Cathedral, in preparation for that recording, was released last year. The ground shakes and heavens open up under Bernstein's animated, impassioned baton. From his first rising phrase in the Kyrie, Domingo -- with mop top and hip sideburns -- is something special, singing with an unalloyed, irresistible ardor exactly on Bernstein's wavelength.
As a conductor, however, Domingo can seem almost the precise opposite. He tends, on the podium, toward respectful professionalism. He knowledgeably shapes phrases. Better than anyone, he understands singers' needs. But he rarely imposes strong ideas or his personality.
That was pretty much the impression he gave Sunday. Given his close relationship to Baitzel and to his Three Tenors partner, he obviously had good reason to bury his head in the score. But there were also moments when something I hadn't heard before came through in Domingo's conducting.
They tended be the quiet moments. He would shape a phrase in the violins or urge a plaintive response from the chorus in a way that had the unmistakable character of his tenor; then he would catch himself and go back to beating time. They were wonderful moments, and if Domingo's singing career ever winds down, he should know he need never lose his voice.
Still, most of what was moving Sunday came from the soloists. The lower voices were phenomenal. Stephanie Blythe hardly lacks for engagements, but she has gotten somewhat lost in the crush of remarkable mezzo-sopranos on the market. Hers is a warm, spacious, soulful and powerful instrument that made the vast Chandler feel intimate. Most impressive of all was her ability to blend with the other soloists, to be a sonic support for soprano, tenor or bass.
René Pape is everyone's favorite bass. Verdi gives him the darkest, bleakest music, death's song. The most elegant figure onstage, the German singer was also the most fearless. His greatness in opera is his capacity to make every word he sings speak. "Mors, mors stupebit," he sings of how death will be astounded before God, after the stupendous trumpet outbursts of the "Dies Irae" (Days of Wrath). The notes go low. Pape's calm certainty bespoke a cool but serious game of chess with death, as if straight out of Bergman's "Seventh Seal."
Adrianne Pieczonka and Arturo Chacón-Cruz (who replaced an indisposed Jonas Kaufmann) brought less individuality. Yet the Canadian singer was grand, and the young tenor from Mexico is a fresh voice. Both were effective.
Domingo did not mine orchestra and chorus for every detail in Verdi's great score, but he got the big picture. Other than some thinness in the violins, the orchestra played with surety and a hint of fire. The chorus made an excellent massed sound, but the ministrations of Grant Gershon, the new chorus master, didn't work miracles. When Verdi doubles the chorus for big fugues, focus began to blur a bit.
Verdi leaves us, in the end, standing in awe, not fear, of death, and Domingo found the necessary measure of awe. But at least one protagonist remained ultimately unaffected by death's authority.Walking out of the hall after the performance, I noticed Pape standing outside having a quick smoke.