This review is for the performance on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.
Verdi’s famed overture for his first masterwork “Nabucco” starts off with a few brass calls followed by a massive explosion of sound a few bars later. From there Verdi’s music traverses the contrast between a glorious melody clamoring for peace and one of military drive. It is this contrast between war and harmonic conciliation and peace that drives this opera, the power-hungry Babylonians trying to conquer a Jewish community that only wants to be left along to venerate their God. Paradoxically, where one exists, it is truly impossible for the other to survive.
This struggle permeates the entirety of Verdi’s work, from its constantly ingenuous musical expression to its stop-start narrative where action is usually relegated to the background, to the very characters themselves and the demands they make on the interpreters. The roles of Nabucco and Abigaile clamor for singers of the delicate bel canto sensibilities, and yet at times the challenges of the roles are akin to those endured by the heft and potency of Wagnerian voices.
This alone makes an opera like Nabucco a tough proposition for any house, particularly in casting all five roles that play into the drama of the work.
But the Metropolitan Opera’s cast, which stars Placido Domingo and Liudmyla Monastyrska, hit all the right notes. Literally.
Domingo As The Hero
Let’s take a look at the title role, one of the most popular baritone parts in the repertoire, and for good reason. Much has been said about whether Domingo is a baritone or not, but the truth is that the conversation really has no relevance or even importance as is little more than a distraction. As is the case, every singer has roles that suits their vocal sensibilities and style and others that don’t work. Domingo, as legendary as he is, is subject to the same situation.
But Nabucco fits him like a glove. Yet another father role in the Verdi canon (he seems to do best with these). Nabucco enters late in the first act after the Babylonians effectively take over the Jewish temple. His first words are blasphemous, “Di Dio che parli (Of what God do you speak?)” which foreshadows the line of text that will prove his emotional turning point. Domingo’s voice from the get-go was authoritative and powerful, his declamation cutting and jagged to emphasize the violent nature of the King. He strutted about the stage with authority, his only eye contact a pointed glare that upset those that endured it.
Domingo’s singing maintained this consistent level of potency throughout much of the first half of the work, the King’s power at its highest and most threatening. He rarely backed off and any seeming threat to match or top him vocally was met with a stream of glorious sound. At 75, his voice, while possessing an edge and wider vibrato, is still as imposing as ever.
But those expecting a one-note performance from the legend were greeted to something far more nuanced and fragile in the second act when Nabucco takes his throne and declares himself God. At that point, the tenor, after a fortissimo declaration of blasphemy, fell to the ground and started crawling about on all fours as he sang “Chi mi toglie il regio scettro,” the singing initially more accented and less connected to express Nabucco’s despair. But on the “Oh mia figlia,” Verdi’s first truly delicate section for the baritone, we heard Domingo’s luxurious legato, his voice softer for the first time on the night, drawing the listener in. The passage is the infamous struggle mentioned earlier with the baritone jumping from a vulnerable state to a fighting spirit, the vocal lines demanding he sings over a potent orchestra. Domingo was up to the challenge, his voice pushed to its edge, the craze seemingly more and more passionate. It was a breathtaking moment of vocal drama.
But he was far from finished.
As he entered the stage in the second part of the opera, one could not help but be reminded of Rigoletto as he enters the stage looking for his daughter. Domingo looked about from man to man as if in a daze, searching for something, but not quite knowing what to do. His body language made him pitiable and his opening lines, in which he attempts to reclaim his authority added to his pathetic nature. Domingo sang with strength, but the voice had greater restrain, emphasizing the character’s diminishing powers.
The scene between Abigaile and Nabucco is a brilliantly depicted power struggle, with the two singers asked to use every technical resource at their disposal. At its best, it can be an exhilarating tour-de-force in which each actor seeks to top the other vocally, the true winner the audience that gets to delight in top-notch virtuoso singing and drama.
Domingo and Monastyrska delivered in a way that few others can boast. Domingo voice started to regain that glean and potency from the opening of the opera only to be met with a monster of a soprano voice that had all of the answers. At one point, the King threatens to make his daughter a slave, sighting some evidence. Abigaile, who already knows of this trick, pulls out the evidence and in a moment of fine dramatic staging, Monastyrska ripped up the paper in Domingo’s face and let the pieces rain down on him. All of this while standing over him on a massive staircase. When he asked if he was in fact a prisoner, she met his first with a derisive “Si” sung in soft and biting tones as to draw laughter from the audience. But then she turned toward him at the top of the stairs and blasted sound, threatening him with all of her might. It was clear who the victor of round one was halfway through the duet.
With Nabucco at his lowest point, Verdi gives Nabucco “Deh perdona,” a melody as exquisite as anything the young composer ever wrote and Domingo’s approach featured a polished legato line during the opening phrases. With every line of the passage, his voice grew in intensity until at the final line “Che la vita del suo cor,” he had no qualms about letting his sound blossom with overwhelming passion. It was his most heart-rendering moment of the evening to that point.
But Abigaile’s mocking response, her melody flighty and bouncy, saw Monstyrska throw her voice around with abandon, no coloratura or ornament too difficult for her dynamic voice. The two repeated the passage with some ornamentation thrown in on the second time. The climax, in which the baritone utters “Deh Perdona” two more times as the orchestra comes to a silence saw forceful accenting from the Domingo immediately interrupted by voluminous sound from the soprano. There is great singing and then there is truly great operatic drama. This was the fusion of the two.
Nabucco is not given a proper aria for most of the night until he finally turns to God. At that point, he gets the traditional double-aria scena in the form of “Dio di Guida,” a prayer for help to the God of Israel, and his call to battle “O prodi miei,” a call to arms in which he declares himself King once more (remember that aforementioned dichotomy of war and peace?). Domingo started that scene at the bottom of a set of stairs, slowly ascending it as he gained moral stature, but in a moment of daring acting, he sank to his knees and delivered the opening of the aria face down on the ground. This did not obstruct his beautiful instrument, allowing him to sing with very controlled vibrato and an elegant line that matched the prayerful nature of the aria. As the aria progressed he rose to his knees before eventually standing, the character’s newfound sense of righteousness achieved. The “O Prodi miei”was chopped down rather unfortunately, but Domingo still took on the nightmarish cabaletta with confidence and cutting sound.
In that final scene he delivered the pious monologue “Ah torna Israel” with connected tone, his rendition of the parole scenica “Ei solo e grande” sung with a brightness that Domingo did not display the rest of the evening. The effect was surprising but emotionally enlightening.
In past portrayals of this Elijah Moshinsky production, Nabucco watches as Abigaile die from a distance. But Domingo’s choice emphasized a rather complex reading of the character as he ascended a precarious set of stairs to hold her dying in his arms, pain scoured all over his face. In Domingo’s hands Nabucco is deeply conflicted over his feelings toward the slave he adopted to be his daughter. She is his right-hand warrior and at moments in their exchange he appeals to her love with tender gazes. At others Nabucco barks insults and seems intent taking her down. This ending brought that conflict to an emotional climax for the viewer of this articulate drama.
Still with me? We still have a long way to go because no collaborator in this production should get overlooked in the least.
A Masterful Portrayal of a Complex Antagonist
Least of all Liudmyla Monastyrska who delivered her finest performance at the Metropolitan Opera to date.
Shakespeare and Hitchcock (and most of the greatest artists) have taught us that a story is only as compelling as its villain. And Abigaile is as good as any villain in opera and potentially an antagonist to any soprano brave enough to take her on. This role is the definition of the term “Voice killer” mainly because it is difficult to figure out what voice actually suits it best. Despite being an early Verdi opera, Abigaile demands a soprano that commands Wagnerian heft and volume with nimble coloratura characteristics of a bel canto specialist. Safe to say, that there are few who can take on this role comfortably and many who have tried have found themselves that much closer to the exit signs of their respective careers.
But Monastyrska is more than capable of taking on this role. She might be the best in the world right now as Verdi’s complex antagonist, providing tremendous depth in her portrayal. Her Abigaile is imposing as she prods on stage, tossing off her voice without any restraint. She is a blunt instrument ready for a battle. And yet a few moments later, she is wearing her heart on her sleeve as she declares her love to Ismael “Io t’amava,” her voice taking on a gentler complexion during the opening phrases of the duet, suggesting a plea for his affections. Her subtler crescendos hinted at a passion buried within the character that she was restraining. As the trio develops, Verdi allows the melody to bloom into a climactic (and might I add inconsiderately dangerous) high C for the soprano that, literally, holds the piece hostage for those riveting seconds that the soprano decides to hold to it for. Monastyrka has the task of employing these showstopping (and potentially voice-damaging) notes twice in the trio in a 15-second span. She held the first one rather briefly, but pushed her resources for the second, this after building up the sound into one of a desperate plea.
After being rejected, her Abigaile turned back into a warrior showing no mercy or even interest for anyone around her. In a subtle bit of solid staging, she stood alone on one of the wings added to the Met stage, isolating herself from the rest of the scene.
The second act sees Abigaile at her lowest point as she reads about her true origins as an adopted slave. The recitative that follows throughout this section is treacherous with the soprano spending a lot of time in her upper register all while throwing off a few coloratura runs, one of which is a C major scale that climaxes with three sustained quarter notes all the way up to a high C on the word “Fatale (Verdi had a rather dark sense of humor).” But that did not seem to phase the Ukrainian soprano who instead used the passage to build up her voice, creating one growing wave of sound after another, the volcano within the character growing and growing until… Verdi gives her the most gentle aria in the entire opera.
“Anch’io dischiuso un giorno ebbi all gioia il core (I, too once opened my heart to happiness)” is that trademark extended Verdi melody that he would grow more and more masterful at writing as his career progressed. But here he was writing in just his third opera a soaring melody that would be at home with his middle period. The aria shows us Abigaile’s heart and in the hands of a capable soprano, transforms her into a character worthy of our empathy. Monastyrka was exactly that weaving together one polished legato phrase after another in soft pianissimo singing while sitting on steep steps . Not even at the climactic cadenza did she push her voice to its most powerful, opting for leaving the listener with a gentle portrait of the character.
If you have been following the themes discussed in this review, you likely know what comes in Abigaile’s cadenza – a violent call to arms, this time with the intention of turning her sister Fenena into a slave. And of course in stark contrasting to the finessed vocal lines of the previous aria, this cabaletta, “Salgo gia del trono aurato (I now ascend the bloodstained throne)” this power-grab is musically characterized by biting coloratura over an active orchestra. And of course a high C to crown the achievement.
Abigaile then gets the duet with Nabucco (discussed above) before a well-deserved break. But she gets one final moment as the opera draws to a close singing one final breath-taking melody “Su me… morente… esanime” as she prepares to die. In this moment, the violent woman who has been rejected by the world and reacted with a desire for power and vengeance on those who wronged her turns to one final person for help – God. Her prayer for absolution was sung by Monastyrska with thin sound, drawing the audience in, the pain and anguish allowing the audience to truly empathize with her tragedy.
A-List Supporting Cast
For many Nabucco might be a two-horse race, but that could not be further from the truth. Zaccharias gets just as much to sing as the other lead roles, his passages also moving from praise for the Lord to a call to arms and vengeance on Babylon.
As he arrived from the top of Jewish temple to encourage his people, Dmitry Belosselskiy was confident as Zaccharias, his voice showing strength and brightness as he rallied his people to trust in God. That opening aria, with its climactic “Fidando in Lui peri?” was delivered with exuberance, each vocal phrase stronger than the last, expressing Zaccharias’ religious fervor. He tossed off the higher notes in the passage with accented force, immediately identifying the character the moral center of the entire opera. His voice throughout the “Vieni O Levita” expressed a subdued passion, the voice ebbing and flowing with Verdi’s delicate melody and orchestral accompaniment. Unlike other arias, this one demands emotional restraint from the interpreter, creating a spiritual awakening. Belosselskiy managed this feat quite ably.
Of course as with everything about this opera, pinning Zaccharias as a saintly man is not quite so simple. He tries to murder a woman on stage, calls out an entire culture for not following his God (he goes so far as calling their God “false”) and incites his people to violence. Understanding the violent potential Belosselskiy portrayed certain passages with forceful declamation that had a bitter quality in its expression. This was most evident in the first cabaletta “Come notte a sol fulgente” in which he essentially curses the Babylonians for their beliefs. The voice projected throughout the hall with robust vibrato and Belosselskiy had no fear about throwing a few interpolated high notes on the repeat of the cabaletta, showing fearlessness in the face of high danger.
As Fenena was famed Mezzo Soprano Jamie Barton. Barton’s characterization matched the delicate vocal lines of Verdi, a sharp contrast from Monastryska’s more emphatic Abigaile. The character’s arc is evident right from the start. A prisoner of the Jews, she slowly converts her religion and helps set them free. At the end of the work, she sings a prayer to God, a passage that Barton delivered with refined legato and sustained line (she took few breathes throughout, giving the singing a seamless and elegant polish).
Tenor Russell Thomas has a bright future as a Verdi tenor and one hopes to see him get meatier roles at the Metropolitan Opera in the near future (“Otello,” “Trovatore,” “Aida” please?). His voice just fits this repertoire beautifully, the famed squillo coming naturally to him. His declaration of love to Fenena in the first act (his only real sustained solo passage) was luxurious in its execution, a gradual crescendo over the course of the phrase signaling his blossoming love.
The One-Horse Race
And then there is the chorus. Remember how I mentioned earlier that Nabucco is more than a two-horse race? How about we see it as a one-horse race with a few stragglers joining the fray?
In many ways this opera is a work for chorus and then soloists because the ensemble actually plays the most crucial part in the drama. If you asked anyone what the most famous passage of Nabucco is, most opera experts will immediately turn to the famed “Va pensiero sul ali dorate (“Fly, thought, on wings of Gold”), the Jewish people’s remembrance of a home long gone. This passage of course became a revolutionary battle cry for the people of Italy and maybe someday, other countries might also have the reflections and sentiments of nostalgia and longing portrayed in this immortal choral passage. The chorus was one voice throughout the section, the explosive sections producing goosebumps that have been few and far between at the Met this season. In previous performances, effusive applause led to an encore of the passage, but this evening’s audience seemed uninterested for most of the evening, the applause rather tepid at best.
But the chorus was just as vibrant throughout the rest of the evening, managing to produce titanic sounds in its solo passages while providing substantial support alongside the soloists. The work had an epic dimension as a result, emphasizing the counterpoint between Verdi’s private and public themes.
Another Legend Makes His Mark
In the pit was the legendary James Levine, issuing one of his finest performances in years. The conductor has been troubled by health issues and this has affected his ability to deliver that same intellectual polish and emotional intensity in many of his recent runs. But on this night he was on his A-game, a throwback to the years when he was at his brilliant peak. The opening section of the overture, a chorale-like passage for trombones was rather quick in its tempo, setting the stage for a forward-drive that never ceased throughout the evening. Despite his quicker tempi, he found a way to give Verdi’s rather simple orchestration tremendous depth, emphasizing moments that are usually ignored in favor of vocal pyrotechnics. The rapid string ornaments at the start of Zaccharias’ “Come notte a sol fulgente” emphasized the violence inherent in the passage. The choral explosions on “Arpa d’Or dei fatidici vati” during the “Va Pensiero” showed orchestral restraint, blending comfortably with the chorus instead of overpowering it. He balanced well with the singers throughout the night, particularly Monastyrska who seemed to use the orchestra’s powerful sound to propel her own powerful instrument to greater aural strength.
A Painterly Production
Moshinsky’s production is the epitome of a traditional rendering of an opera, but this should not be seen as a major negative as many would indicate. It is not a progressive reading of the opera, but rather a painterly one with each set a balanced creation and every bit of staging photographic in its execution. Some have noted that the opera feels much like an oratorio because most of the main action takes place off-stage and the imagery supports this reading. Look no further than how the Hebrews are seated around the temple steps in “Va Pensiero.” Or in my personal favorite moment, examine the scene where Nabucco declares himself God. On a pyramid set that features a massive staircase at its center, the King falls to the ground as God punishes him with a thunderbolt. Suddenly the blue lighting turns red and everyone falls all over the floor laying about in an image that is highly evocative of Eugene Delacroix’s “Death of Sardanapalus.”
Every single set in this production features rather prominent staircases, with Nabucco’s throne at the top of a one rather steep and precarious-looking set. This motif plays into the opera’s sense of struggle for power with the character dynamics constantly studied through this lens. Abigaile rises to the thrown and towers over Nabucco from the staircase throughout their exchange. Nabucco’s dethronement happens on the staircase and he winds up climbing down and finding himself at the bottom of the stage until he rises up during his scene of prayer and reclamation of power. Zaccharias spends the most time at the top of the stage structures, exerting his sense of stability and alliance with God. Nabucco’s relationship to stairs in the Hebrew temple is the most fascinating as he enters the structure from the bottom in his opening scene. He ascends some stairs but never gets to the top. When he returns at the end of the opera, he finally climbs to the top to hold his dying adopted daughter in his hands, his conciliation with God and Abigaile complete.
Yes, you should go see the Met’s current revival of “Nabucco.” Great music? Check. Great cast and conducting? Check. Great imagery and production? Check. This is grand opera executed with care, passion and virtuosity.