Friday, November 18, 2011

Nabucco: non implora che la vita del suo cor

 True confession: I like Nabucco. While it may not have the structural elegance and masterful pacing of later Verdi, I find its experimental exuberance very exciting. Not only is there lots going on in the score, but the libretto (by Temistocle Solera) contains fascinating layers of ambiguity and ambivalence. So I got myself into standing room for the last performance of this season's run of the opera at the Met. It was a fine musical evening, weighed down somewhat by the ponderous production. Paolo Carignani and the Met orchestra took the music seriously and played with admirable emotional sensitivity (I loved the gorgeous cello solos especially.) I thought the tempi a little slow at the outset, but that may have been biased by the desire to have the coughers and pawers-in-plastic-bags around me shut up. And Zaccaria does go on. Since I've already written a mini-essay on Nabucco's wealth of interesting ideas about religion, political power, and gender (as perceived by me) I'll limit myself here to saying that I didn't see exploration of any of the above by Elijah Moshinsky's production. This may have been partly due to careless revival direction; the blocking and gesturing flirted dangerously with caricature. Having the Israelites and Babylonians with their characteristic architecture on opposite sides of the Met's giant turntable did, I suppose, suggest parity or mutual dependence between these apparently antithetical political and religious systems... but that's being generous.

The singers, to their credit, managed to transcend this awkwardness to a significant degree. Elizabeth Bishop, as Fenena, warmed up to display a pleasingly rich, dark-hued soprano, and her expressive singing helped make Fenena credible as a soprano with a backbone. Carlos Colombara sounded a bit dry at the top of his range, but he had excellent gravitas and admirable vocal agility as Zaccaria. This was my first time hearing Yonghoon Lee in a full role, and I was impressed from his first notes onward by his sweet, bright-toned tenor. More variation in coloring might have helped give the role dramatic depth, but he was a pleasure to hear. Elisabete Matos, as Abigaille, had the unenviable task of taking on one of those roles to which the adjective most frequently applied is "impossible." Having heard a hum of excited anticipation, I was somewhat disappointed, but I don't have comparative evidence. I thought her pitch could turn erratic and her sound rough at the top of her range, but she had thrilling chest tones, and really impressive agility on the passages of runs required. Also, Matos used her voice adventurously, diving across octaves with reckless commitment. As a coherent dramatic portrayal, I felt the Nabucco of Željko Lučić came together better. He sang solidly throughout his range, authoritative and compelling in the first half, and with touching lyricism in the scenes where the deposed emperor battles for his sanity. The production limited the dramatic vocabulary of the role sadly, but I was still impressed. 

The non-eponymous central character of Nabucco, though, may be the chorus. Of course, there is "Va, pensiero," and it was introspective and impassioned and lovely, but there is also a lot more. As Israelites and Babylonians, the chorus comments, exclaims, supports, rebels, and judges throughout. And the forces of the Met did so very well, with incisive, expressive singing, perhaps most strikingly in the final chorus to Jehovah, sung without the orchestra. It was a treat to hear the excellent Met chorus, for once, in a starring role.

Curtain call photos:

Chorus, with Donald Palumbo

Elizabeth Bishop, Fenena

Yonghoon Lee, Ismaele

Carlos Colombara, Zaccaria

Elisabete Matos, Abigaille

Zeljko Lucic, Nabucco

Company bows

With Carignani

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