Metropolitan Opera Music Director Emeritus James Levine led four performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ with a dazzling cast between Friday, Nov. 24, and Saturday, Dec. 2 (the performance under review). He helmed the world-class Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the peerless Metropolitan Opera Chorus. The four soloists—soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto—were stellar standouts. Since its 1901 Metropolitan Opera premiere, this work has now seen the footlights 53 times.

Everything Music and Theatre explains what makes this monumental work so great and points out a few highlights.

Choral high points

So many fantastic moments, so little time. Running the sonic gamut, choral murmurs open and close this colorful work, requiring utmost restraint and control by the massive chorus, numbering 114. At the other extreme, overpowering high-decibel concerted passages—the recurring “Dies irae” (Day of wrath) and the grim, growly “Rex tremendae” (Dreadful King) among them—cannot help but envelop the audience in a sonorous tsunami. In the first of four iterations of the Day of wrath, the chorus ominously hisses, accentuating the “ess” sound in numerous words of the passage: “Quantus tremor est futurus, quando judex est venturus, cuncta stricte discussurus” (What trembling there will be, when the judge shall come to examine all things thoroughly).

Mezzo moments

Verdi’s mezzo-soprano takes a leading role among the soloists, intoning arias and leading ensembles. The Russian volcanic vocal voluptuary Ekaterina Semenchuk delivered all her numbers with gorgeous tone and legato, never more-so than the “Liber scriptus” aria in the “Dies irae,” where her sturdy, dusky high range made you wish she were a soprano and her powerful burnished lower range made you glad she’s not—with contralto characteristics, evocative of the inimitable late Elena Obraztsova.

When darkness shines

“Mors stupebit” (Stupified Death), the bass’ spooky, hushed opening solo, comes on the heels of the blazing fanfare of trumpets, trombones and French horns of “Tuba mirum” (Marvelous trumpet). Verdi veteran Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto succeeded in engaging in the requisite hair-raising quietness, whereas his later superb solo with chorus, “Confutatis,” became a great showpiece, spun with incredibly gorgeous tone, perfect volume and all the angst the Latin text contains.

Tenor tunes

The tenor’s is the first soloist whose voice makes a showing. His lyrical “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy on us) intrudes upon the orchestral and choral opening, burning brightly upward. The remaining soloists follow in a brief round. “Ingemisco” (I tremble), the tenor ‘aria,’ is everything you’d expect from a Verdi opera, in this most operatic of so-called sacred works. Towering Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko ardently dispatched it, having no trouble in the treacherously high passages, executing an unconvincing trill at first, but acquitting himself nicely upon repeat.

Soprano standouts

Verdi’s soprano, normally the protagonist in his operas, takes a seemingly supporting role at first, singing often in ensemble, as part of the quartet of soloists and in two duets with the mezzo-soprano.

Only in “Libera me, Domine” (Deliver me, Lord)—the final 15 minutes—does she fully own the stage, interacting with the chorus and singing what could be called a three-part aria: at first frantic, then suppliant and finally sedately resigned. Soprano Krassimira Stoyanova gleamed and glowed at the high end of her register and was frightening in the steely strength of her lowest range. Her three distinct iterations of “Salva me” (faint and helpless, then stronger, pleading, and finally imperious) in the “Rex tremendae” section and her ascent to the heights, far above the quartet and resounding clearly over the orchestral and choral tutti, were astounding, utterly moving.

Formidable foursome

The soloists were all well and good in their moments of holding the stage individually.

Teaming up in quartet they were sublime, like when the soprano describes Michael the standard-bearer. Above her sustained (16-second) floated pianissimo, the orchestra and her three colleagues undulated in modulating major-to-minor keys … simply breathtaking. Ms. Stoyanova here deftly, touchingly executed a melting messa di voce (a sustained note that gradually increases, then decreases, in volume)—much more difficult than it sounds in words. As mentioned, their concerted work, mostly with repetitions of the phrase “Salva me,” could not help but move the hardest heart; the desperation conveyed brought tears to the eyes.

Orchestral pearls

The two brass fanfares (in “Tuba mirum” and the veritable marching-band “Sanctus”) are the most glaring examples of Verdi’s mastery of full-throttle orchestration.

But an early passage, in “Liber scriptus,” takes the ear back in time to Amneris in “Aïda,” three years earlier (1871), and farther still, to Azucena in “Il trovatore” (The Troubador; 1853). The flute and piccolo flourishes in “Libera me” bring to mind Amelia’s Act-II gallows scene in “Un ballo in maschera” (A Masked Ball; 1859). On the quiet side, nothing is so ethereal as the shimmering orchestra, created by soft violin tremolos, at the beginning and end of various sections.

Golden silence

Verdi’s dramatic use of the “grand pause”—a slash of complete silence at the height of full vocal and orchestral volume—is spine-chilling. In the chorus’ “Tuba mirum” (Wondrous trumpet), a few seconds lapse before the reverberating ends, following “ante thronum” (before the throne), creating understated drama when the subsequent bass solo, “Mors stupebit” (Stupefied Death), begins at an eerie whisper.

The soprano negotiates such an abrupt cut in “Libera me,” following the line “dum veneris judicare saedum per ignem” (when you come in flames to judge the world). Sneering, heckling contrabassoons answer.

Platinum conductor

James Levine has lovingly led the last 17 performances of Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ at Metropolitan Opera, last seen there in 2008. As in any work he conducts, he lavishes love on the soloists while creating perfect balance between the magnificent orchestra and Chorus Master Donald Palumbo’s matchless onstage chorus. Turning in his wheelchair to face the audience, he received their raucous ovation while everyone onstage warmly applauded him and the orchestra. This is truly an event not to miss.