Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Paolo Carignani
Producer: Elijah Moshinsky
Director: J. Knighten Smit
Nabucco: Zeljko Lucic
Abigaille: Maria Guleghina
Fenena: Renée Tatum
Ismaele: Yonghoon Lee
Zaccaria: Carlo Colombara
While I was busy pondering what to pick among the many tempting choices of the newly opened Met season, I got an unexpected but much appreciated offer to attend the performance of Nabucco last night. Although it had not been on my list of must-sees and I’ve had a long-time aversion to going out on Saturday night, I figured that I couldn’t really go wrong with Verdi, not to mention that I had never had an opportunity to become familiar with his first big success. Moreover, and maybe even more importantly, hearing “Va, pensiero”, an aria so meaningful to Italians that it was spontaneously sung by crowds in the streets during Verdi’s state funeral in Milan, performed live by the consistently fabulous Met chorus just had to be a memorable experience. So off I happily went on a surprisingly mild fall evening.
I am no fan of Biblical stories, probably because I often have a hard time keeping track of all the tribes, territories, gods and complicated relationships among them all, but that does not keep me from trying. Apparently taking some significant liberties from ancient history – not that I could tell anyway – Nabucco’s plot revolves around the political and romantic entanglements of several characters, with a quick supernatural intervention thrown in for good measure, during the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. The fact that it is all happening in a rather discombobulated, heavy-handed way is, needless to say, irrelevant. This is an old-fashioned opera, after all.
Although Nabucco is the title role – being the victorious king of Babylon has its privileges – all eyes and ears are typically focused on Abigaille, a slave who is originally thought to be his older daughter (I can’t explain it either). In the past, this notoriously taxing soprano part has mercilessly ended the careers of some of the brave singers who dared to take it on, and was promptly turned down by some other ones who obviously knew better. So I was curious to see how Maria Guleghina, a widely experienced Met stalwart, would handle it. Well, it turns out that she did very well, in all likelihood because the role is the perfect fit for her mighty, take-no-prisoners voice and stage presence. Since nobody was going for prettiness or nuances here, the broad strokes with which she painted and sang her Abigaille, whether casually planning to have her sister killed to get closer to the man and the throne she was coveting, or incessantly scheming and ranting and raving with ferocious determination, made for a jubilantly larger-than-life villainess, whose glittery, tight-fitting outfits shamelessly outlined all her impressive curves for an even stronger impact. Now that’s entertainment, folks!
Although the other characters couldn’t but pale beside her, they still managed to more or less hold their own. In the role of the conquering king temporarily blinded by ambition and insanity before coming back to his senses, Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic got better as the evening went on. Young Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee brightly shone as Ismaele, and his onstage paramour, equally young Californian Renée Tatum, did an honorable job with Fenena. So did Italian bass Carlo Colombara as Zaccaria, the high priest of the Hebrews.
But if you wanted to experience sheer musical ecstasy, you had to wait for the chorus to have a chance to sing, which they fortunately did frequently. If for any reason there were any doubts left about the dazzling quality of their work, this Nabucco would magisterially put them to rest by proving once and for all that there is not a single, even remotely weak element in the superb ensemble. The show-stopper of the evening was, naturally, “Va, pensiero”, the poignant hymn of the Israelites longing for their homeland, and the Met chorus’ viscerally haunting rendition of it last night will definitely have a prime spot on my all-time musicorgasms list. Of course, the fact that the scene was also a visually simple but arresting tableau did not hurt either.
Speaking of visuals, I cannot say that the set was very imaginative, what with all the stairs and doors and that huge god-like statue, but on the other hand, its smart design enabled it to rotate and mutate with laudable efficiency. Again, there was nothing subtle about it, but it got the job done, which basically meant that people could run up and down, then stand at various locations and sing out.
The music is not the best Verdi has ever had to offer, but hey, the guy was only 26 when he wrote it, and it is interesting to see this third opera of his in light of his subsequent œuvre. And let’s give it to him, he was at least sharp enough to realize that the chorus deserved special attention while still being mindful not to neglect the soloists, so a wide range of emotions is vividly expressed throughout the score. Paolo Carignani, our conductor for the evening, made sure to keep the reliably brilliant Met orchestra going at a brisk pace, and nicely contributed in making this first, unplanned Met evening of the season a successful one. May there be many more.