Considering it's popularity in the Verdi canon, it remains unbelievable that "Nabucco," the great composer's first masterpiece, has not established its presence as a Met repertory staple. The opera was first performed at the Met opera in the 1960-61 season and did not make a return until 2001 when director Elijah Moshinsky and Met artistic director James Levine erected it from its extended absence. Since then, the Moshinsky production has been performed in three separate seasons and the opera has only seen a little over 50 performances to date and it seems that the opera is establishing its importance on the Met stage.
The October 15 performance definitely presented a strong argument for the opera's importance to the Met repertory. The Moshinsky production may be one of the "untheatrical" and "gratuitous" representations of what Met general manager Peter Gelb has been trying to weed out of the Met stage, but unlike some "theatrical" productions that Gelb has brought onto the stage in recent years, it has a clarity of vision among the visual splendor of the scenery. To be clear, Moshinsky's staging is a far cry from the luxurious sets of Zeffirelli. It is conformed of a two sets on a rotating turntable. One side represents the simplicity and barren nature of the Hebrew temple while the other side represents the opulence of the Babylonian palace. The rotating set enables for greater connectivity between the scenes without awkward curtains falling and rising that would normally occur in a different production. Most critics would argue that there isn't much in the way of acting, and the truth is that without a few exceptions (more on them later), there is "parking and barking" throughout the performance. Even though it is likely that more could have been done by the stage direction to obtain more visual kinetics from the actors, it is unfair to place complete blame on the stage directions. Unfortunately, most of the action takes place between the scenes and the majority of the action onstage depicts the characters expressing their emotions from the events that have just transpired (and that we have yet to see). Verdi composed Nabucco in the vein of an oratorio and for better or worse, the performance has this feel. However, to balance this sense of stillness and stagnation, the production places a great emphasis on painterly images and the diverse lighting effects, placement of characters on different levels of the staging, and other visual juxtaposition remind the viewer of the great paintings. When Nabucco is struck by God for his blasphemy, everyone falls to the ground and stillness ensues as Nabucco sings plea. The lighting goes red and the entire image has the look and feel of Eugene Delacroix's "Death of Sardanapalus." The staging of the famous "Va Pensiero" in which the chorus (and the diversely colored costumes) is spread on different layers against a beige rubble that has a semblance of a Rafael painting. It may not have the energy and constant flux that Gelb has been asking for from modern directors, but the vision is concise, direct, and often times powerful.
As refreshing as the production was, it was the cast that truly carried the performance. Leading the charge was soprano Maria Guleghina, the leading Abigaile of the current generation. Guleghina played the power hungry daughter of slaves with snarl and tremendous vocal presence. Guleghina has never had an inspiring upper range. In fact, it often fills you with dread that she may miss the note or that it will come off shrill. For good measure, she did have a few of those spotty moments during the performance, but this could not opaque the powerful impact and exhilaration that her singing brings to the audience. One particular moment is during the Act 1 trio with Fenena and Ismaele. As she held an upper note, she RAN across the stage over to her beloved, all the while sustaining the note immaculately. It was an inspiring moment to be sure and certainly a feat few singers today (or in the past for that manner) could accomplish. Additionally, Guleghina gave Abigaile tragic dimension and delicacy that most singers omit in favor of giving the villain heft, power, and control. Not the case with Guleghina who has some of the most piercingly beautiful piannissimi of any singer today. It also helped, that Guleghina was one of few that attempted to interact physically with not only her partners, but her surroundings.
Zeljko Lucic was a surprisingly thrilling Nabucco. I have heard him struggle through other Verdi roles such as Rigoletto and Conte di Luna in "Il Trovatore," but there was no sense of insecurity in his Nabucco. Lucic's performance was an example of what we see so little of today on the opera stage: Verdi Baritone singing that is both technically sound and musically diverse.
Carlo Colombara played the priest Zaccaria and had an inconsistent night. He sounded insecure during his entrance aria, often rushing ahead of the orchestra and sounding like he was running out of breath. His voice sounded overwhelmed by the orchestra during the ensuing cabaletta, with audible strain. However, his Act 2 prayer was easily one of the most moving moments of the entire night. Aided by a light orchestral accompaniment, Colombara was able to weave elegant and rich phrases without great difficulty. It was a winning moment for him.
Tenor Yonghoon Lee, here as Ishmaele, proved why he is one of the up and coming tenors to keep an eye on. His tenor is not only potent, but filled with security and great expressive depth. Renne Tatum had a solid night as Abigaile's rival sister Fenena.
Conductor Paolo Carignani started off the night with a lethargic rendition of the opera's famed overture. However, the rest of the performance was a different manner as Carignani put the muscularity and rich delicacy of Verdi's score on full display. More importantly, Carignani proved to be a tremendous accompanist for his singers, accommodating accordingly when certain singers seemed uncomfortable or unsteady.
But Nabucco, more so than any other opera in the entire canon, belongs to the chorus. The chorus dominates the work from start to finish and plays essential roles musically in every solo. Most notably is the famous and glorious "Va Pensiero," the opera's centerpiece and likely Verdi's most famous chorus from any of his operas. The Met's chorus was more than up to the task and gave a riveting performance not only of the "Va Pensiero" but at every other choral moment in the work. The Met chorus is usually great in any opera performed on the illustrious stage, but illustrated how much of a force it could be given the ample opportunity to shine.