Verdi’s Nabucco opens at the Met

The year 1842 was a watershed year in the history of opera: a young Giuseppe Verdi scored a huge success at the famed Teatro alla Scala in Milan on March 9 with Nabucco, his third opera, and a young Richard Wagner scored a huge success at the Königlich Sächsisches Hoftheater in Dresden on October 20 with Rienzi, also his third opera.

Both are more or less loose baggy monsters, though Rienzi is arguably more loosier and baggier, easily clocking more than twice the running time as doth clock Nabucco; both operas have glimmers of the great things to come from each composer, but neither opera is a masterpiece: the writing in each rarely penetrates the souls of their characters.

To the point, Verdi’s Nabucco is mostly loud and raw…but it sure is exciting!

Certainly the role of Abigaille can slam you to the back of your seat. Indeed, finding a soprano who can successfully negotiate the peaks and valleys of the role and live to tell about it is part of the challenge of mounting this particular opera. More history: Verdi wrote it for the celebrated dynamic dramatic soprano Sofia Loewe, who, though she inconveniently dropped out before the first run of Nabucco, soon afterward created for Verdi Elvira in Ernani and Odabella, another vengeful warrior maiden type, in Attila.

Liudmyla Monastyrska is Abigaille

Liudmyla Monastyrska is Abigaille

In this season’s run of Nabucco, Liudmyla Monastyrska, a soprano from Kiev, Ukraine, soars over the orchestra in all of Abigaille’s big scenes, but she also manages some small degree of sorrow at usurping the throne, hobbling and imprisoning her father and ordering the execution of her sister. Compared to other Abigailles I have heard on stage, Monastyrska sings with a less edgy voice, is more focused and at times even sweet. She moves well, though the staging is relatively static. She is exciting and pleasing all around. Brava!

The title role is more three dimensional: Nabucco is arrogant, defiant, and vengeful, but later humbled to his knees by Abigaille, quickly remorseful, penitent, and...sad? At the opera’s close this time around Nabucco comforts his dying daughter Abigaille while all the others around celebrate their release from captivity and oppression. The gesture was not in the original run of this Moshinsky production. Hmmm. What does his last embrace and comforting signifiy? But wait, come to think of it, in the Met's DVD release of Nabucco from that 2001 run, Juan Pons has a tear steaming down his cheek in the final close up. Hmmm again.

Placido Domingo is Nabucco

Placido Domingo is Nabucco

Plácido Domingo continues his foray into the baritone repertory with a performance of Nabucco that, to my senses, portrayed many facets of his character. On this first night, however, especially during the extended three part duet with Abigaille in Act III (as written, Part II as performed, Donna, chi sei?; Oh, di qual’onta aggravasi; Ah, qual suon!), the big chunk of humble pie he chomps off seemed to compromise Domingo’s delivery, leaving one wondering if Nabucco il Re or the singer himself was experiencing the distress. If the former, Domingo found new emotional depth in the role of the tyrant of Babylon; if the latter, Domingo, seasoned veteran that he is, was able to cover it well. Bravo!

The third principal role is Zaccaria, the High Priest of the Hebrews, here admirably sung by Dmitry Belosselskiy, also from Ukraine. His rich basso voice soared over the orchestra and chorus, particularly in Act I. The nobility of character, depth of faith, and light of hope are evident at all times in his performance

Compared to, say, La Traviata, the romantic interest in Nabucco is scant, a sidebar, even though in fact a love triangle drives the plot. Ismaele, nephew to the King of Jerusalem and the Hebrew ambassador to Babylon, has fallen in love with Fenena, Nabucco’s natural daughter, but he’s also attracted the affections of Abigaille, who was once a slave, but, critical to the plot, is now Nabucco’s adopted older daughter. She also doesn’t cotton well to competition, has a short temper, and violent streak. Rising star Jamie Barton places the wholesome Fenena more to the center of the plot with a strong presence and solid voice; young tenor Russell Thomas is an urgent Ismaele; Danielle Talamantes is Anna, Zaccaria’s sister; Sava Vemić is the High Priest of Baal; Eduardo Valdes is Abdallo, Nabucco’s right hand man.

James Levine tendered Verdi’s robust music with the necessary energy, but found the soft touches in the score where necessary. Under Levine and Donald Palumbo the Metropolitan Opera Chorus was outstanding.

A remorseful Nabucco in Babylon

A remorseful Nabucco in Babylon

The current production of Nabucco, new in 2001 and only the second in the Met’s history, was created by Elijah Moshinsky, with set by John Napier. J. Knighten Smit directs this revival. The set is a rotating two sided cone with changeable structures on two faces. One, a predominantly rocky and blocky wall, is both the Temple of Solomon and the banks of Euphrates River, the other is the Babylonian royal palace, complete with exalted throne, and the dark apartment in which the fallen King Nabucco is imprisoned. Good news: the scenes can be “changed” with no long pauses and the wall also serves as a huge sounding board for the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. They open the opera magnificently as the chorus of Hebrews in the besieged Temple; they nearly close the opera as the chorus of Hebrews singing, also magnificently, the famous Va, pensiero sul l’ali dorato. But the arrangement, with its shallow flat playing space, also constrains the movement of the chorus and principals to mostly a lot of up and down or simply stasis. The long stairs leading to the throne are steep with no railing: Monastyrska tentatively ascended and descended these, stopping, getting balanced, assuming her stance, and singing. Not for the acrophobic, in other words.

Last asides: Verdi’s Nabucco is the first of a long line of epic baritone roles, including, in the composer's more immediate future, Macbeth and Rigoletto. Also, my first Abigaille on stage was Elena Suliotis, first in concert at Carnegie, later in costume in Philly, followed by Ghena Dimetrova in concert doing scenes, and, in the opening season of the current production, Maria Guleghina. Ms. Monastyrska is competitive with these singers. Enjoy the journey!

Reviewed performance date: December 12, 2016.

Photos: Marty Sohl.

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