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A Requiem Mass with pizazz

Compared with the Masses of Bach and Mozart, Verdi's Messa da Requiem is flashy and dramatic, with solos that sound like arias. Running an hour and a half, without intermission, it has moments that surpass anything the composer wrote for the opera house, simply because of the work's vast scale.

The Requiem even gave rise to one of the most famous one-liners of music criticism, conductor Hans von Bulow's judgment on going through the score that it was "Verdi's latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes."

So why not turn it into a stage work? Berlin's Deutsche Oper did just that in November, with painter-director-designer Achim Freyer's symbol-laden production. It featured a chorus wearing skull-like masks; stylized characters for Hope, Longing, War and Death on the three-level stage; a bare-chested, white-painted tenor called "The Lonesome One"; a soprano wielding a white neon tube and so on.

Well, maybe not.

This weekend, Jahja Ling leads the Florida Orchestra and the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay in a more conventional performance of Verdi's Mass. The soloists are Camellia Johnson, soprano; Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, mezzo-soprano; Jianyi Zhang, tenor; and Thomas Potter, bass.

Johnson also was a soloist the last time Ling led the orchestra and chorale in the work in 1994.

The Requiem is something of a paradox in Verdi's career, given that he was, if not an outright atheist, "certainly not much of a believer," according to a letter by his second wife, soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, as quoted in Verdi: A Biography by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz. Still, the composer insisted that his Mass be sung in a church, and it was premiered in the Church of San Marco in Milan in 1874.

Verdi wrote it in memory of the nationalist writer Alessandro Manzoni, whose most famous work was the historical novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), the Italian equivalent of War and Peace or Les Miserables. The Requiem was composed shortly after he had completed Aida.

Last year was the occasion for many Requiems around the world, to mark the 100th anniversary of Verdi's death, and at least two superb recordings of the work were released. Claudio Abbado leads a powerful performance by the Berlin Philharmonic and three choruses with a starry cast of soloists _ Angela Gheorghiu, soprano; Daniela Barcellona, mezzo-soprano; Roberto Alagna, tenor; Julian Konstantinov, bass _ for EMI. The Naxos historical label reissued a memorable Rome Opera performance from 1939, with Tullio Serafin conducting.

In general, a conductor can take one of two approaches in the Requiem, either bringing out its spiritual side or its theatrical quality, and both of these are solidly in the latter camp.