In a geriatric special, the Met televised its 2001 production of Verdi’s Nabucco featuring septuagenarians Placido Domingo and James Levine. The former in the title role and the latter behind the baton. This pairing of ancients would suggest that everyone should be eligible for a senior ticket. But everyone in my theater was already eligible.
Nabucco has an interesting history at the Met. Though first performed in 1842, it didn’t get to the Met until opening night of the 1960-61 season. The company performed the opera 14 times in New York and on tour. I attended one of these performances. Cornell MacNeil was Nabucco and Leonie Rysanek sang the very difficult role of Abigaille. MacNeil was brilliant; he was at the summit of his powers with a huge sound and rockets for high notes. Rysanek did a lot of yelling, which was her specialty, and was pretty successful with the part. The audience seemed to like the piece very much. I certainly did. It was Verdi with the explosion of fireworks.
But then there was silence – for 40 years. Nabucco didn’t resurface at the Met until 2001. Since then it has become a staple at the house – 51 performances in the 21st century. According to Operbase, it is the 17th most frequently performed opera in the world and fourth on the Verdi list.
Verdi’s third opera, Nabucco has all the characteristics that subsequently made its composer supreme in the lyric theater. Dramatic intensity and melodic beauty of the highest caliber distinguish this opera from the other great Italian operas of the first third of the 19th century. Nabucco also has a volcanic energy unlike anything heard before.
The lack of this energy was the main problem with this performance. Messrs Domingo and Levine are past the point of explosive energy. Maestro Levine conducting from a motorized wheelchair gave an expert reading of Verdi’s fiery score, but without the incendiary part.
Mr Domingo is a legend, deservedly so. But he’s not a baritone; he’s a tenor who has lost his high notes. He’s also lost a Verdi baritone’s high notes. His effective range is about an octave and a half – few notes above the staff. Within this range he sound quite good, remarkably so. But he doesn’t have what’s needed for this role to succeed – power and exciting high notes. He reminds me of a great matador who has retired and missing the thrill of the arena returns as a rejoneador. The crowd comes to see him hoping that he’ll dismount to finish the fight and that they’ll see a flash of his youthful brilliance. But it’s gone and disappointment is assured. Nevertheless, this was the best impersonation of a baritone that I’ve thus far heard from him.
The star of the afternoon was the Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska. Abigaille is one of the most demanding roles in the Italian repertory. She crushed it. The vocal gymnastics, high notes, and orchestra obliterating sound were all hers. She made the difficult role seem simple. It was a tour de force. Her voice maintained its beauty while all the fireworks were going on. There’s no Verdi part she can’t do. I expect her to do Turandot before too long. It should be an easy payday for her. A formidable artist.
Tenor Russell Thomas has been with the Met since 2005, mostly in smaller roles and recently in leading parts. He has a steady sound and likely is now a spinto, but it’s hard to tell here as Ismaele is not a demanding part. I’d like to hear him in a more formidable role. He sounds ready for Pollione and Manrico which are in his repertoire but have yet to be heard at the Met.
Dmitry Belosselskiy’s singing was a puzzle. The Russian bass’s portrayal of the Hebrew priest Zaccaria started out with brilliant and powerful notes. ‘Egitto là su i lidi’, with the exception of one strained high note, was beautifully sung. But during the ensuing cabaletta something happened. His voice lost resonance and he almost missed the high note near the end; he shorted it after just an instant as if he knew he would lose it if he tried to hold onto it. His precarious vocal state lasted until well into the second act. After that he was fine except for strain at his upper notes. His lowest tones were poorly produced throughout the opera. His best when he’s at his best, is very good.
The remaining roles were all sung with distinction. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, winner of the 2015 Richard Tucker made the most of her secondary part. She made her Met debut as Fenena on December 30, 2015. She’ll make her role debut as Jezibaba opposite Kristine Opolais as the titular Rusalka in the Met’s upcoming staging of Dvorak’s opera. She’s a singer to watch.
Elijah Moshinsky’s 2001 production still looks good. It revolves, without making a racket, allowing the action to proceed seamlessly. It centers around a ziggurat-looking pile in the middle of the stage.
In summary, a good show that, except for Monastyrska’s brilliance, just wasn’t hot enough.
Metropolitan Opera House
January 7, 2017 Broadcast/Streamed
Giuseppe Verdi–Temistocle Solera
High Priest………….Sava Vemic
Set designer…………John Napier
Costume designer……..Andreane Neofitou
Lighting designer…….Howard Harrison
Stage Director……….J. Knighten Smit