New London — It was an unfortunate promotional decision to announce a funeral mass as a birthday celebration, but all's well that ends well.
On Sunday afternoon, the Connecticut Lyric Opera marked its 10th anniversary with a wonderfully sung performance at the First Congregational Church of the Verdi Requiem that was drawn from the company's statewide musical network.
Sunday's concert encapsulated the CLO's musical sprawl across the state and was born more of these tendrils than from the main operatic shoot here. The opera company's music director is Adrian Sylveen, who also is music director for the New Haven-based Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, and it is that orchestra which performs for the CLO. Since the orchestra was performing the requiem in New Britain Saturday evening with a large chorus drawn from the New Britain Chorale, Polonia-Paderewski Choir and Capella Cantorum, it seemed a shame to let the talent go to waste, so the encore arrived here.
In some ways, the performance at the church took the company back to its roots, the place where the company staged its first "Carmen" 10 years ago on a shoestring budget. The CLO now performs four opera productions a season in four cities – Middletown, Waterbury, New Britain and New London – and in many ways has become the dominant opera company in the state in a decade of remarkable growth and achievement.
Enhanced by a large brass and horn section to serve Verdi's lavish score, the orchestra Sunday had grown to 52 pieces, and the brass and horns were arranged in the balconies on either side of the altar-turned-stage in an antiphonal style that harkens back to Arcangelo Corelli. The sound in the high vaulted sanctuary was splendid.
Sylveen drew the full operatic drama and theatricality from this unusual requiem, mostly with well-balanced dynamics. For an opera audience, the effect of this requiem by the greatest of opera composers can be more of the theater than the cathedral. Again and again, there were moments that carried you back to the operas, such as in the Offertorio, so redolent of the sorrowful and death-haunted final act of "Il Trovatore" that you expected to hear Leonora intoning grimly "fuggi, fuggi …"
The featured soloists, all with ties to CLO productions, had wonderful moments. Tenor Christopher Lucier, often given key dramatic moments, was vocally commanding, and soprano Jurate Svedaite-Waller, the CLO's resident prima donna, was in fine voice, often soaring above the massed chorus and orchestral tuttis.
But the score is very much centered on the mezzo-soprano part, and Heather Petrie was the vocal star of the performance. This is not some failed soprano hanging on as a mezzo, but a true contralto, with a big, deep, resonant projection that can fill a hall. Her performance was impassioned Romantic Italianate fervor, especially in the Lux aeterna, where the tessitura took her up a notch, and her burnished tone turned golden and soared sweetly.
Bass Ryan Foley, at times very warm at the bottom of his range, was increasingly unfortunately unfocused and wobbly as the long mass progressed.
But the chorus grew in strength as the work progressed, as its best in the contrapuntal storm of the final section and when called upon to roar above the orchestral crescendos in the requiem's well-known Dies irae.
It was pure operatic Verdi, the "Rex tremendae" steeped in dread, the "Recordare, Jesu pie" a heartfelt plea, the performance as a whole, a triumph.