Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Patriotism Goes Biblical at the Met

Verdi’s Nabucco
Metropolitan Opera
December 16, 2016

Grand opera at the Met.
Photo credit: MetOpera
The revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco brought us pleasurably back to grand, grand opera at the Met. For works like this one, where the historical context plays such a central role in the plot, sticking to traditional sets (especially those as spectacular as the Met’s here) is a necessary choice. I’m all for modernizing and streamlining productions, but for certain operas, dazzling historical pomp is just what it takes. Once we saw a minimalist Aida with an alien-futuristic take by Fura dels Baus and it was beyond grotesque. But back to Nabucco: not only did this production that debuted in 2001 prove itself a timeless classic with stunning temples and gorgeous costumes but we were also lucky to assist a remarkable star-studded cast bring the whole thing to life with none other than the inimitable James Levine at the helm.

Abigail moves in for the kill.
Photo credit: MetOpera
Mezzo Jamie Barton played Fenena, Nabucco’s daughter. I always jump at the opportunity to her her sing especially since I was completely blown away by her Adalgisa in Norma last year in Los Angeles. But after hearing Barton in Nabucco it became clear to me that Bellini’s writing for Adalgisa just suits her voice in a whole other way. Here it was like listening to another artist, a perfectly fine singer, just not as transfixing. The same goes for tenor Russell Thomas as Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem. We were bowled over by him in that same L.A. Norma. Here he was good, just not as extraordinary as when we first got to know him. True that both Fenena and Ismaele are not as meaty when compared to other roles in Nabucco.

Soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille, Nabucco’s eldest daughter who discovers she’s of slave descent, was a force of nature to be reckoned with. Her sound is incredibly powerful though her Italian was often a bit muddled. From the beginning, however, she came across musically and theatrically as a woman on a mission, a power hungry animal in pursuit, a rebel with a cause.

Bass Sava Vemić as the high priest of Baal, an evil character pushing Abigaille to power, was making his Met debut. We first encountered this young singer in a Roberto Devereux where he played the most minor role but was the best and most powerful singer on stage after Mariella Devia. It was great to see him again. He sounded good but not quite as forceful as we remember him that late winter day. His voice came across a bit too young for the role, perhaps he still needs to figure out the Met’s acoustic. On the other hand, baritone Dmitry Belosselskiy as Zaccaria, high priest of the Hebrews, was a discovery, which is a testament to just how solid this cast was overall.

Tenor turned baritone steals the show.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Which brings us to the highlight of the night. The legendary Placido Domingo was strikingly expressive as Nabucco. I’m not sure that what we heard was necessarily a baritone, but he sounded full and raw, and played the emotional core of the opera like an open wound. Still going strong at his age, Domingo exceeded my expectations on every level. While some say that Placido should just stop pretending to be a baritone, after hearing him here, I cannot but disagree with them since, at least here, in a way, his lyrical expressivity as a life-long tenor translated very well into the baritonal role. No other singer on stage conveyed character as effectively as Domingo. He portrayed the journey of the hubristic king who falls into madness only to subsequently convert and become an enlightened ruler with a heart-wrenching humanity that found me tears more than once over the course of the evening.

Father-daughter dynamics turned on its head.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
At the center of Nabucco is a father-daughter drama, around which revolves a series of satellite dilemmas that help to motivate and shape things the larger story of the captive Hebrew population and their desire for freedom. This is one of those rare operas in which the role of the villain is played not by an alpha male of one kind or another, but rather by a jealous, vindictive, power hungry woman. Who said that the history of opera was only populated by stories of men doing awful things to women?

And it all comes to a head in Act III. The individual threads come colliding together when Nabucco, the now disenfranchised father descends into his deepest darkest cave. Having lost his throne and his position as the patriarch of his people, he makes an incredibly moving reflective prayer-like plea. Having hit rock bottom, he touches a kind of madness that I can only liken to that of Shakespeare’s King Lear who suffers a similar fate at the hands of two of his daughters. Then of course, all of this is followed by Verdi’s big show-stopping patriotic choral interlude Va’ pensiero. Beautifully executed, it is staged in a golden halo of transcendent light that is as uplifting and gilded as the melody the terrific Met chorus gently sings. It is truly gorgeous stuff and perhaps the most stunning ode to nationalistic longing in the history of opera.

Biblical patriotism comes suffused in a warm halo of light.
Photo credit: MetOpera
In just the past few months we have encountered several of the most important and moving patriotic bits in the nineteenth-century Italian canon. Last October two of Rossini’s political hymns graced the stage in the same week in both L’italiana in Algeri (Isabella’s aria Pensa alla patria) and Guillaume Tell (the final chorus À nos accents religieux). In Macbeth, which LoftOpera so brilliantly brought to us in December, we got to hear Verdi’s breathtaking moment of collectively displaced reverie in Patria oppressa.

It has been a season rife with Risorgimento undertones, as all the great classics in the nationalist songbook were here. With the election cycle rattling away through it all in the background like an obnoxious New York radiator in the dead of winter, it has somehow felt fitting. If only today we were so lucky as to be blessed with a populism that sounded so melodious.

– Lui & Lei
The great king crumbles, moves us to tears.
Photo credit: MetOpera

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