Pros: Maria Guleghina's total embodiment of Abigaille. Met Opera Chorus. Sam Ramey.
Cons: Very static stage direction. Uneven music that drags at times.
Giuseppi Verdis Nabucco (Met 2001 : Levine/Moshinsky)
Set in Jerusalem and Babylon circa 587 BC (during Jerusalem's 3rd captivity), this 1842 opera established the young Verdis reputation as one of the best opera composers of his generation (at the very least). It is an uneven work, and one can hear the influence of the fading bel canto era in the florid writing in some arias, especially those of Abigaille. Most of the qualities that would become the trademarks of Verdis composition are present, however. The chorus dominates the opera and is the main dynamic force that drives the story ahead (the Part III chorus, Va pensiero sullali dorate, is now practically Italys alternative national anthem). Though the work gets bogged down in some parts, Verdis sense of drama and knack for using orchestral colors to drive the scene is very effective.
The story concerns the 3rd occupation of Jerusalem and the religious conversion of Babylonian King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar... you know, that mad dude who had a hanging garden in his palace) to Judaism. He is the only Biblical character to appear in this work, though. The opera is divided into 4 parts (usually given with just one intermission between the 2nd and the 3rd); Jerusalem, The Impious One, The Prophecy, and The Broken Idol.
The opera begins inside the walls of Jerusalem as the city is being attacked by King Nabucco of Babylon (whose daughter Fenena is being held hostage in the Jewish temple). Nabuccos eldest and very feisty daughter Abigaille manages to drop in on the object of her affection, the Hebrew King Ismaele, while he is having a rather private conversation with his beloved Fenena. Abigailles foul mood from being romantically rejected is not helped when she discovers an evidence that she is actually a daughter of slaves rather than of Nabucco.
As appointed Regent of Jerusalem while her father is taking a trip out of town, Fenena promptly converts to Judaism and liberates the Jews, who then shun their own king Ismaele for his part in their enslavement. When Nabucco is struck with a bout of madness upon having displeased the Hebrew god by proclaiming himself a deity, Abigaille usurps the Regency (tricking the addled Nabucco into signing Fenena's death sentence in the process). After a show of remorse, the old king is granted his senses again just in time to rescue his real daughter and also to convert to Judaism. Foiled and failed to kill anyone else, Abigaille poisons herself, and closes the opera with a touching (what else?) conversion to Judaism before succumbing as Nabucco is proclaimed the King of kings by Zaccaria.
Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon) ::: Juan Pons (baritone)
Abigaille (A Babylonian slave, initially mistaken to be Nabuccos first daughter) ::: Maria Guleghina (soprano)
Fenena (Nabuccos real daughter) ::: Wendy White (mezzo-soprano)
Ismaele (King of Jerusalem) ::: Gywn Hughes Jones (tenor)
Zaccaria (High Priest of the Hebrews) ::: Samuel Ramey (bass)
Anna (Zaccarias sister) ::: Alexandra Deshorties (soprano)
High Priest of Baal ::: Stephen Morscheck (bass)
Abdallo (a Babylonian officer) ::: Rafael Suarez (tenor)
Conductor ::: James Levine / The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Chorus Master ::: Raymond Hughes / The Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Stage Director ::: Elijah Moshinsky
This is a traditional staging of the opera, using a very stylish and grand sets by John Napiers, featuring multiple tiers that look quite a work out for the cast to clamor up and down on. It is quite a tall order to clutter up the very large stage of the Metropolitan Opera, but Mr Napiers proves that it isnt such an impossible task (the chorus being on the stage most of the time sure helps in that regard). Elijah Moshinskys stage direction is so static that much of the performance passes by like a series of still portraits rather than an actual stage performance of a dramatic opera. This is regrettable to me, considering that Mr Moshinsky has a great actor (Samuel Ramey) and two very good actresses (Maria Guleghina and Wendey White) at his disposal. There are some really good actors in the Metropolitan Opera Chorus as well, and the video director, Brian Large, is wise to zoom in on them whenever possible.
Maestro James Levine leads the beautifully disciplined Metropolitan Opera Orchestra on a brisk and lively read. There is nothing quite like an orchestral brass section that plays beautiful piano (soft volume) to start off this overture with. The tempo never slacks and the orchestra never tries to showcase itself at the expense of the voices. Mr Levine isnt as at home with the early Verdi style as he is in Mozart and Wagner, but I quite love the way he takes care to showcase the singing voice. The live audience agrees and successfully demands an encore of the famous Va pensiero chorus (see a clip of it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BZSqtqr8Qk).
On the lead-singing front, the title role of Nabucco is powerfully sung by the baritone Juan Pons. He is an old-school opera singer whose acting comes out more in the voice and not in body movements. Close your eyes when he is singing, and he is a fine king in distress (though perhaps too one-dimensionally whiningly for the character). Open them, and you might need some convincing that he isnt actually a singing statue. He does look like he is trying, but acting just isnt second nature to him (though his Part III duet with Abigaille sees him more moving than in the rest of the performance).
The leading role of the opera is Abigaille, the Babylonian warrior-ess who is about as pleasant a lady as Elektra of the House of Atreus. Though unlike that batty Greek, she does prove to have a conscience in the end. This role has a reputation as a voice-killer, demanding a big dramatic voice of a wide range that can cope with some really florid singing above the stave. The Russian soprano Maria Guleghina is nearly perfect for the job and dominates most of the scenes she appears in with her possessed acting, and her amazingly pinging top vocal register that blasts through some really loud coloratura works Verdi demands (and he demands a lot... all that tricky fioritura and octave-jumping done at forte or louder all opera long cant be very healthy for the voice ). The bottom range of her voice isnt quite powerful enough for me... which makes me a picky jerk, considering how difficult this role is. It doesnt help that her top notes are so imposing that the difference is obvious (and the forte held high notes are revealing a touch more vibrato than Id like to hear). On close up shots, her acting would seem a bit exaggerated, but that is entirely necessary since this is a recording of a live performance on the huge stage of the Met. She must act to the live audience in the 4000 seats auditorium and not us video viewers. There is no emoting in her final conversion and death scene at the end (Su me. Morente. Esanima.), however. If you find yourself bored in the course of watching this DVD, you must at least have a go at the final track before giving up on it. It is a masterpiece. To be honest, I wouldnt want to run into this girl and her out-sized sword even in a crowded and well lighted alley... Ms Guleghina reminds me a lot of Galina Vishnevskaya, and that is a tall compliment in my book. The live audience has a similar opinion and gave her a roar of an ovation at the curtain call (aside from serving up 2 bouquets, despite of them being banned in that opera house).
The mezzo-soprano Wendy White is vocally a delight as Fenena. Despite of some questionable stage directions (or the lack thereof), she is a sympathetic Fenena and plays off well with Guleghinas manic Abigaille. I regretfully find Gwyn Hugh-Jones wanting vocally as Ismaele. I like the timbre of his voice, but it doesnt fare all that well compared to all the big voiced colleagues he shares the stage with (and it doesnt help that the only cast member he is more expressive than is Pons Nabucco). The great Samuel Ramey displays his usual convincing stage presence, and wonderful dramatic nuance as Zaccaria, though the voice has, by this performance, acquired a rather prominent vibrato that makes it sounds shaky. He is equal to the 2 ladies on the acting front, however. Its a shame that the stage direction is so static for most of the performance.
To be honest, the reason I would buy this DVD all over again is the performances of Maria Guleghina and the Met Chorus. The opera, despite of its very famous Part III chorus, doesnt measure up to Verdis later works, and this stand and sing staging would probably render most newcomers to the opera sound asleep before the end of the 2nd Part. For hardcore Verdi opera fans, however, Maria Guleghinas turn as Abigaille is not to be missed. I shudder to think of what price she was willing to risk in performing this vocal kamikaze of a role this dramatically convincing a manner.
2 DVD. Sung in Italian with subtitle in: Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese.
Extra: Trailers of Turandot (Marton), Fidelio (Mattila, Heppner, Pape), Tristan und Isolde (Eaglen, Heppner, Pape), Bryn Terfel at the Royal Concertgebouw; Photo gallery of the first Met production of Nabucco.