Palau de Les Arts 2019-20 Review: Nabucco

Plácido Domingo & Anna Pirozzi Give Strong Performances In Verdi’s Early Work

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Miguel Lorenzo/Mikel Ponce)

Renowned opera star Plácido Domingo returned Valencia’s Palau de les Arts to great success with audiences jumping to their feet at the close of the night and raining down confetti on him.

It hasn’t been an easy few months for the famed artist, but despite the controversy surrounding him, he looked as calm as ever onstage, delivering a performance that was truly astounding. The voice, even at 78, is fresh and natural, with a young timbre and volume enough to cut through the orchestra in this baritonal tessitura.

A Solid Role for A Solid Baritone

As has often been expressed in the controversy regarding Domingo’s switch from tenor to baritone, we must consider that the Spanish artist started his career singing as a baritone and in the view of this writer, Domingo has always had a baritone voice. Therefore, it is quite natural that, even at his advanced age, his voice is well-suited for many of these baritone roles. In fact, he sounds much better than some younger baritones today.

Domingo has always been clever about which roles to sing, choosing Verdi’s more lyrical ones and avoiding the more dramatic ones like Riccardo in “Un Ballo in Maschera” or Iago in “Otello.”

In the case of Nabucco, Verdi’s third opera, the baritone register does not expand too high or low. The limited orchestration also allows a singer to resist having to push out sound. Having sung most of his career as a tenor, Domingo has no problem in navigating through the E flats and high Fs constantly without obscuring the color of his voice for passages like “Di Dio che parli?…Si finga, e l’ira mia” or the dramatic outburst of arrogance in: “Non son più re, son Dio.” He knows how to portray all the feelings of his character through the music, as shown in his line “Pròstrati, o schiava, al tuo signor,” here sung with anger and resolution. He emphasized every repetition of the line “Deh perdona” in a different way always begging in despair.

But then he turned lyrical and lightened up  his voice to sing his Act four aria “Dio di guida,” which turned out to be the highlight of his performance. Here his long legato lines, impeccable ascensions to high F and attention to the dynamics of the score were quite potent in creating this effect of penitence. This was furthered by the fact that he sang half of the aria lying down on his stomach and the other half on his knees.

His interpretation of the cabaletta ”O prodi miei” was bravely portrayed with an splendid high G ( the highest and only one written on this score). However, Domingo did show signs of breathiness and an inability to maintain the rhythm of the piece. He also opted for avoiding the high A flat, as he has done in the past, resolving the cabaletta down an octave, an indication that he may not be as comfortable with these high notes at this point in his career.

Nonetheless, his interpretation was remarkable and he cut an imposing figure onstage, creating the impression of a youthful king of no more than 50. His artistry is truly legendary.

(Credit: Miguel Lorenzo/Mikel Ponce)

A Monster-Size Role Dominated By A Potent Soprano

The role of Abigaille belongs to a list of devilishly written soprano roles that characterized Verdi’s early period.

It is essential to  consider that it belongs to a soprano dramattica d’agilita, but Verdi pushes the limits of the tessitura and coloratura to extremes of unmanageable difficulties with a two octave range that spans from a low C to a high C. Chronicles from the period of Nabucco’s premiere, affirm that Verdi’s demands in the writing ruined soprano Giuseppina Strepponi’s  vocal health.

Fortunately, the Palau de Les Arts managed to bring the magnificent soprano Anna Pirozzi in one of her signature roles; during the Valencia run, she will reach 100 performances of this opera.

Pirozzi’s soprano matches the difficulties of the score with a beautiful timbre (most dramatic voices tend to be strident with a lot of vibrato in the highest register) with a velvet round sound in the lower and middle part of the range. She also has thunderous high notes which fill the auditorium. Her lower register was equally stunning, especially on her second entrance line: “Prode Guerrier!” beginning with a long low B natural. Keeping this low tessitura around low C sharp for the next two lines, she produced a clean and voluminous coloratura for “su voi sospesso, sospesso è già,” reaching the first of many high B naturals with ease. She dominated during the Terzetto, particularly with the first enormous high C of the night in “Salvar, ah! Il tuo popolo salvar!” It seemed that she missed the second high C during the repetition as you could barely hear her, but when Ismaele and Fenena finished their notes, there was a crystalline and piannisimi high C floating in the air, proving she had total control of her voice. Her sound dominated again over her colleagues, chorus, and orchestra during the first act finale, which kept ascending to high B flats and B naturals.

The second act opens with Abigaille’s aria “Ben io t’invenni….Anch’io dischiuso un giorno,” which is the test for every soprano singing this opera. The aria begins with an ardent and angry recitative which ends with a two octave passage that goes from a high C down to a low C in “O fatal sdegno!” It then continues in the middle tessitura which requires legato phrases with a full range of dynamics.

Pirozzi sang a powerful recitative which she resolved dramatically as she ascended to the high C and descended down to the low C with fluid coloratura. During “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno,” Pirozzi displayed gorgeous piannissimi especially on the high A naturals and immaculate breath control that supported vocal evenness and strong legato singing.

During the cadenza which requires a high C written “pp,” Pirozzi delivered a tender high C which floated above a delicate orchestra. This aria and her death scene present the two opportunities for the soprano to show a more delicate side to a character that is in constant anger. That immediately changed in the cabaletta “Son gia del trono aurato,” which Pirozzi sang with commanding coloratura and trills, voluminous high notes, muscular low notes, and a long sustained and powerful high C.

During the Abigaille-Nabucco duet in Act three, Verdi kept the writing for the soprano a bit more lyrical. The coloratura lines are more fluid and despite the high B flats and a few low Ds and Cs, the writing is less taxing. The challenge with this duet is to arrive with a fresh voice. Pirozzi demonstrated her stamina and knowledge of the role as she showed no signs of vocal fatigue. Instead, she brought an imposing force that showed no mercy for the Nabucco’s mental decline.

The confrontation between Pirozzi and Domingo was exciting and moving, filled with vocal fireworks. The opera ends with Abigaille’s death and Pirozzi finished her performance with a moving scene displaying smooth and soaring piannisimi.

Credit: Miguel Lorenzo/Mikel Ponce

A Struggling Bass But a Strong Fourth Protagonist

In the role of Zaccaria, Riccardo Zanellato did not have the best of nights as his voice sounded tired and lacked volume in the higher and lower registers. He was constantly swallowed by the orchestra and the chorus, especially during his solos.

While Zaccaria is a smaller role than the two leads, it is not an easy part. Verdi requires stratospheric high F sharps (a very unusual high note for a bass), coloratura lines in cabalettas and strong low G and F sharps. It also demands a big and imposing timbre to be flexible and resolute in the higher register.

Verdi gave three arias to Zaccaria and on this evening Zanellato sang with a ringing middle register, between his middle and high C, but lost brightness and projection in the extremes of his vocals.

He seemed most comfortable in his Act two aria, “Tu sul labbro,” where he sang long legato lines. But when he reached the final high E natural his sound became guttural and distant. The first aria and cabaletta, “D’Egito là sui lidi…Come notte a sol fulgente” and his last solo intervention, “Del futuro nel bujo di scerno,” however, seemed to be a struggle for Zanellato as he delivered uneven lines.

As Fenena and Ismaele, Russian mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova and Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz had an impressive evening, both showing strong vocal quality.

The fourth real protagonist of this opera is the chorus, which is present throughout the whole performance, accompanying the soloists in cabalettas and finales and opening the drama. They also have the most famous chorus in classical music, “Va pensiero” which was an instant hit at its premiere and became the hymn of the rissorgimento movement in Italy. The Chorus de la Generalitat Valenciana sounded better than ever giving a moving interpretation of this iconic piece. It was encored on this evening for the purposes of this production.

Spanish conductor Jordi Bernàcer offered an uncut critical edition of the opera, with all the repetitions in cabalettas and an extra chorus at the end not present in the Ricordi printed score.

Bernàcer brought incredible musical detail from the orchestra giving the score more drama. His  tempi were also modest driving the music forward and giving it a good balance from beginning to the end.

Credit: Miguel Lorenzo/Mikel Ponce

An Uneven Production

The production by Thaddeus Strassberger with costumes by Mattie Ullrich was rather disappointing. For this production, Strassberger’s concept was the use of theater within theater. It is a concept that has been used so often in opera and at this point for it to feel fresh, it should be used in a stimulating and enlightening way. In this case it felt like another routine production repeating a trick.

The production seemed like a copy of Harold Prince’s “The Phantom of the Opera” interpretation. The theater boxes were present on one side of the stage with ballet girls being rehearsed by a strict ballet mistress who resembled Madame Giry in a long suit holding a walking stick. There were also couples dancing waltzes and entering the theater dressed in fashionable 19th century costumes who took their seats in their boxes to attend a performance of “Nabucco.”

The actors on the boxes also threw flowers at the performers during the real curtain calls. During her own curtain call, Pirozzi walked to the front of the stage to silence the audience so the chorus could repeat “Va pensiero” a capella. During this encore, they were joined by the soloists who threw the flowers back at the the actors seated in the boxes. The choir also unfolded an Italian flag and some extras and dancers appeared with a signed that said “Viva Verdi” with the colors of the Italian flag.

There were also confusing moments in this production particularly when the sets turned around to a painted oil canvas to represent the backstage of the theater. There were people who looked like stage hands and the chorus appeared seated facing the back of the theater. It seemed as if they were going to sing turned away from the audience but immediately turned around to sing “Va Pensiero.” The immediate image of the chorus facing away was a nice surprise and quite beautiful. It would have been interesting to hear them sing the famed chorus in that position as it would have made for a more distant and intimate interpretation.

There were some interesting aspects of the production especially in the recreation of the original sets from the first “Nabucco” production. They were very beautifully painted with a deep sense of perspective. But the overall issue with the production however, was the fact that it wanted to say too much without reaching a clear message or end. Watching the production one only had questions. Was it a representation of the risorgimento movement? Was it an homage to the composer? Or was it both? The director failed to answer any of these questions, creating a confusing production.

All in all this was a great evening led by Domingo and the astonishing vocal and acting power of Pirozzi.


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