Teatro Real 2021-22 Review: Nabucco
Gabriele Viviani’s Solid Nabucco is Let Down by Subpar Supporting Cast & ProductionBy Mauricio Villa
This review is from the third performance, on the 8th of July.
The Teatro Real closed its 2021-22 season with 15 performances of what is probably Verdi’s most famous early opera: “Nabucco.” With four baritones sharing the titular role, three sopranos, and three basses, this production promised to be one of the highlights of the season. But despite having such a large cast of renowned and specialized singers, the theatre, in coproduction with Zurich opera, presented a poor new production. It diminished the theatrical impact up to the point that it would have been wiser to present a concert performance rather than such a confusing, minimalistic production.
Andreas Homoki and Wolfgang Gussmann led the staging and set design. The entire opera was staged around a big green marble wall that spun around and moved forwards and sideways. One could see at any given time how the soloists and chorus moved around the wall to take up their different positions for different scenes. While Homoki surely had an entire rationale explaining the significance of this wall and its different positions, it just came across as random and meaningless. The job of a stage director is to explain the opera that is being performed so it can reach the audience. Homoki’s concept would, unfortunately, work for any and every single opera. One could stage any title, any opera, and have the soloist and chorus simply move around a big wall. The use of dramaturgical elements like moving in slow motion–seen during Nabucco’s entrance–freezing the action, and the use of choreography were all employed with very poor results. The worst choice was making the male choir perform a music-hall dance number with top hats and white gloves during Abigaille’s heroic Act two cabaletta, turning this bombastic, dramatic moment into an absurd, comical scene. The choreography stole all the focus from the poor soprano, who was singing one of the hardest cabalettas ever written for this type of voice.
The action was shifted from sixth century BC Babylonia to 21st century CE Italy, and this shift was reflected in the costumes. This did not feed into a clear and cohesive staging, however. It did not ultimately matter which period the singers’ costumes hearkened to, as none of the aesthetics was incorporated into a larger sense of theatrical intent. As happens with every opera, “Nabucco” can have infinite readings: political, religious, a love triangle, ambition, madness, the list goes on. In the face of this, it was incredibly difficult to discern the meaning of what was being shown on stage. Homoki used flashbacks, staging during the overture a depiction of how the queen died, leaving her two daughters motherless and her husband alone. During the opera, the two children appear several times again. It appeared they were meant to be the projections of Abigaille and Fenena when they were children, but once again, this imagery did not add meaning, focus, or strength to this minimalistic and conceptual production.
Italian baritone Gabriele Viviani portrayed the titular role. He possesses a warm, well-projected voice with a fair vibrato and strong high notes. His entrance, “Di Dio che parli,” was authoritarian, strong, and heroic, as he colored his voice to portray this tyrant war hero. Viviani clearly showed Nabucco’s weakness and mental degradation while delineating both vocally and dramatically the emotional arc that this character goes through. Nabucco’s downfall begins in the second-act finale, following his line, “Giù! Prostati!… non son piú re, son Dio.”
The strong war hero is transformed into a weak old man in his third act duet with Abigaille. Here Viviani sang with moving pitifulness the section “Deh perdona, deh perdona,” singing long legato lines in one breath in the most perfect bel canto style: Verdi was clearly influenced by the structure and style of the bel canto period during the composition of his early operas. The highlight of Viviani’s performance was his aria and cabaletta “Dio di Giuda…O prodi miei,” which was sung with exquisite mezza voce and fair legato. He changed easily into strong, heroic singing for the cabaletta, which he concluded with an interpolated, powerful, long high A flat.
Not Their Night
Neapolitan soprano Anna Pirozzi, who portrayed the devilish character of Abigaille, is an example of a singer who intimately knows her own repertoire and is thus able to address the extremely difficult vocal demands of the role while keeping the innate qualities of her voice intact. She debuted this role at the Salzburg Festival in 2013, and it has remained one of her signature roles ever since. After nine years of singing dramatic repertoire, her voice sounded bright and powerful, with ringing, thunderous high notes, and sonorous, well-projected low chest notes. This was heard especially during her entrance, “Prode Guerrier,” which began in a low B natural, followed by a central, strong recitative that kept the voice in the central to lower register while demanding strong intentions. At the end of the recitative, Verdi wrote the first of this role’s many devilish scales, going from high A natural to low E, followed by the first B natural of the night. In this two-minute entrance, Pirozzi exhibited her total control of this role through the mastery of her voice across her entire register, filling the lines with rage and determination. She quickly changed into long, sustained lines in mezzo voce for the trio “Io t’amaba,” where she delivered the first two high Cs of the night.
What hurt Pirozzi’s performance was her unpolished and unclear coloratura. This was laid especially bare in her line “che il solo mio ben contende” and in the scales of her Act two cabaletta, “oh fedel, di te men forte.” But Pirozzi compensated for this with her strong voice, delivering a perfect two octave jump from high C to low C on the line “o fatal sdegno” in the recitative prior to her aria “Anch’io o dischiuso un giorno.” This she sang in a well-supported mezzo voce with a long line in one breath ascending up to A natural. She concluded the aria with a perfect pianissimi high A but oddly chose to sing a chromatically descending scale instead of the written cadenza going up to high C. Nevertheless, she delivered strong high Cs on the cabaletta.
She was aggressive and commanding in her duet with Nabucco in Act three and finished her performance with a moving death scene sang in exquisite mezza voce. Anna Pirozzi is doubtless one of the best interpreters of Abigaille active today, a role very difficult to cast due to the extreme demands of dramatic singing with coloratura.
Ukrainian bass Dmitry Belosselsky began the performance singing the role of Zaccaria with a tired, poor sound. Whenever he was phrasing around D, E flat, or E natural, the notes were flat and shortly sustained, and when he tried to sing the final cadenza of his entrance aria–“Sperate o figli”–the high F was hoarse, and the low G not audible at all. During the cabaletta “Come notte a sol fulgente,” his voice was turning hoarse across the entire register, and notes began to break. He was clearly sick and in poor vocal condition. Zaccaria is probably one of the hardest bass roles ever written, demanding an extreme tessitura from a high F sharp to low F sharp; heroic, bombastic singing; and pure legato lines at the same time with a strong sound.
Belosselsky was quickly replaced in Act two by Russian Alexander Vinogradov, who usually sings in a different cast in this production. Vinogradov entered the stage with his aria “Vieni o levita.” With a modest sound but strong interpretation, Vinogradov finished the performance with his dark, velvety voice and top ringing high notes, exemplified by the long, sustained high F sharp at the end of “pofezia” in Act three.
It was only during the interval that the theatre announced Belosselsky’s withdrawal from the performance and the immediate incorporation of Vinogradov, the latter having barely any time to warm up his voice and prepare for what was to come. The effort and the artistry of this young bass, who stepped in so quickly and to such great effect, is therefore due mention.
It was a luxury to have American tenor Michael Fabiano in the small role of Ismaele. It was rather strange that a tenor with such a grand trajectory decided to debut so minor a tenor role–the character only sings in ensemble and has no solo aria–but it is no secret that Verdi is one of Fabiano’s favorite composers: Ismaele marks his 12th Verdi tenor role. The tenor has also become a household name in the recent seasons of Teatro Real: he would not have missed this role. Fabiano shines for his warm, strong, projected voice, his delicate Italian fraseo, and his dramaturgical skills. The role of Ismaele is written around the passagio, between F and G, and this is a register where Fabiano’s voice is bright with a spectacular squillo. You could hear Fabiano’s voice clearly over the rest of the company.
Spanish mezzo soprano Silvia Tro Santafé gave a timid interpretation of Fenena. It is true this is an ungrateful role when compared to Abigaille. Fenena largely sings in ensembles and has a single, short, melancholic aria in Act four. Her volume was modest, and her timbre a bit dry, however. Santafé did not sound comfortable in her aria “Oh di schiuso é il firmamento,” where she appeared out of breath, and the high A natural of the final cadenza came out strident and dry.
The participation of the choir of Teatro Real was simply brilliant. The ensemble sang at full capacity, with 90 singers. Their interventions were strong, and their voices blended perfectly. But it was their interpretation of the famous slaves’ choir, “Va pensiero,” which was the triumph of the night. With great chiaroscuro contrast by way of alternating mezza-voce with forte, incredible crescendos-diminuendos, and never-ending, soaring pianissimi–the last note of which simply disappeared–the choir earned a standing ovation from the audience, who demanded an encore. This the choir gladly provided, as they have been doing since opening night. This is the first time that a choir has been asked to sing an encore at Teatro Real.
Loud and Brusque
Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti is famous for playing loud and fast. And this is what he mostly did during the entire performance, missing harmonic details in favor of a bombastic sound. Luisotti sacrificed detail in favor of brightness and auditory heroics. As usually happens with this conductor, the orchestra, when playing en forte, buried the voices of most of the soloists, and only Pirozzi and Fabiano’s voices could carry over such a dense sound.
At times–such as the entrance of the choir before Nabucco’s cabaletta in Act four–the tempo was so fast that the choir was a little behind the music. The exception was the already mentioned “Va pensiero,” which Luisotti conducted calmly and in pianissimi, though the orchestration of this choir is very light and clearly influenced by bel canto compositions.
The orchestra of Teatro Real maintained its high standards throughout, and alongside the choir were the crowning triumphs of a new staging of Verdi’s classic “Nabucco,” which left a lot to be desired visually and suffered somewhat from last-minute cast changes on the night, though the soloists did their best in the circumstances given.