Friday, February 5, 2016

Nabucco at the Lyric Opera

Nabucco is the opera that made Verdi’s name, first performed when the composer was just 29 years old.  Generally regarded as Italy’s, if not the world’s, greatest opera composer, and certainly its most popular, Verdi was born into a family of modest means in northern Italy and had his first music lessons as a boy from his local parish priest.  His talent was noticed and he eventually found his way to Milan.  His early life, though, was not a straight line of success and happiness.  Although his first opera was a modest success, his second was a complete flop.  By that point his two young children both had died, soon followed by his 26 year old wife.  Devastated, he put composing aside, perhaps wondering if he could ever write again.  Eventually he was convinced to try his hand at another opera.  He later recalled, per Wikipedia, how he slowly started his work with "this verse today, tomorrow that, here a note, there a whole phrase, and little by little [it] was written."  The opera was well-received at its first performance in 1842 at La Scala.  It was Nabucco.  I was fortunate to attend a performance the other day at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

It’s easy for a wonderful work like Nabucco to get lost amidst the great riches of Italian opera.  An example:  The Lyric Opera Companion is a collection of essays on 90 operas – the “world’s greatest” says the cover.  It includes 14 operas by Verdi, but Nabucco is not one of them.  I think that says more about Verdi’s body of work than it does about Nabucco.  It also says more about the collection, one that excludes, for example, the Bellini masterpiece Norma while including Twentieth Century smash hits like The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe and Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (boy it's hard to stop humming those Glass tunes). 

Nabucco's story line seems a curious one for Verdi, in his grief, to tackle, but the impresario of La Scala pressed him to undertake it.  The libretto is based on biblical stories of the trials and tribulations of the Hebrews in Jerusalem as they are attacked and conquered by the Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar II (shortened to Nabucco) from Babylon, who after destroying their great Temple hauls them off to Babylon as slaves.  That part is historical.  The libretto adds a love triangle between a Hebrew soldier of royal blood and Nabucco’s two daughters who both desire the young man.  The rejected sister vows vengeance, and eventually usurps the throne intending to kill the Hebrew captives.  Great melodrama ensues.      

Although it has grand musical moments, apart from one piece Nabucco’s music is rarely featured on compilation albums.  One reason may be that despite many wonderful ensemble sections, the tenor role is minimal – the solos and most of the male singing are for the bass and the baritone.  In fact, the bass has a great deal of solo singing, though too much of that low, low register for my taste.  Certainly a band or an orchestra needs a double bass fiddle, but not front and center carrying the melody.  Nevertheless, there is some beautiful music.  Notable is the moving second act quartet, which blends into a moving ensemble as more singers join in.  The one well-known number is the melodic and stirring "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves," sung by a downtrodden group of Hebrew slaves toiling along the Euphrates who sing the hopeful “Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate” ("Fly, thought, on golden wings").  In fact, when Nabucco premiered some feared the piece would remind northern Italians of their subjugation by their then Austrian rulers and thus enflame political passions.

This is the recording I have been enjoying;
Domingo sings the relatively-small tenor role
Lyric's major singers are a bunch of Verdians.  Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan returned to the Lyric in the lead role of the spurned and vengeful daughter Abigaille.  She was terrific.  I enjoyed her last year in the lead role in Tosca and thought (link) her “a great actress with a great voice.”  About that performance, Lawrence A. Johnson wrote (link) that Serjan “vocally was beyond reproach, her gleaming lyric-dramatic instrument communicating a wide range of intense emotions as touchingly as her expressive face.”  Music critic Jay Nordlinger caught Serjan a few years ago in Verdi’s Macbeth at the Salzburg Festival and praised her performance, writing that she “smoked, smoldered, and scalded her way through the role.  She could not have been darker, and she was wonderfully effective.  Her soft high notes ... were astounding.” 

Serbian baritone Željko Lucic was strong as the king Nabucco, coming alive in the second half.  He has a warm, powerful voice.  He is a regular at the Met, having sung two roles just last fall – Iago in Otello and Scarpia in Tosca.  Rounding out the all-Slav cast in the three major roles was Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy, strong in his part as Zaccaria, the High Priest of the Hebrews.  His bass sound is as forceful and vibrating as I think I have ever heard.  He opened the current season at La Scala alongside Anna Netrebko in Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco.  Reviewing Belosselskiy’s performance last year in Verdi’s Ernani, Nordlinger wrote that “he owns a beautiful instrument.”  The actual lovers in the story, who set many of the events in motion, have small roles – the Hebrew soldier Ismaele was Russian tenor Sergei Skorokhodov and Nabucco’s daughter Fenena was American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong.  The Lyric snuck one Italian into the production in the form of conductor Carlo Rizzi.  

The Lyric set was striking in its vivid coloring, though excessively stark and spare in design.  Props were de minimus.  Here budget constraints melded with minimalist Ikea sensibilities.  As for costumes, the suffering Hebrews were all in mourning black, the slaughtering and arsonist Babylonians all in flame red.  Many of the backgrounds were in a deep, rich blue, perhaps to recall the blue used on the traditional Jewish prayer shawls worn at synagogue, a reminder of the great Temple just lost.

The libretto’s story of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity is broadly based on historical fact.  In the opera, though, Nabucco, the Nebuchadnezzar of Hanging Gardens and Ishtar Gate fame (link), proclaims himself a god and is promptly struck mad by the true Hebrew God.  Fortunately, he eventually recognizes the true God just in time to regain his senses and save his daughter Fenena, Ismaele, and the other Hebrew captives from execution at the hands of the vengeful Abigaille.  The operatic, fictional Nabucco is a composite of a number of historical characters, one of which is Cyrus, the Persian king who eventually freed the captives and allowed them to return to Judea.  The real history was not so easy on the Hebrews, but filled with such grand spectacle and beautiful music, we’re happy to let Verdi and his librettist take the liberties needed to produce such a wonderful musical story. 

R Balsamo 

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