Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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January 13, 2017

I’m a sucker for early Verdi operas, always have been.  So I tried hard to get to a theater to see the Metropolitan’s HD production of Nabucco with Placido Domingo, conducted by James Levine.  The first theater here in the Palm Springs area where I tried to book a ticket on line a few hours before the show was completely sold out except for the theater’s first row—too close to the movie screen for me!  So I tried another multiplex a little farther away from our desert home, and snagged one of the last seats in a decent part of the house.  I guess the crowds are good news, especially for an opera that is not well known as a whole to the opera-going public.

Nabucco was Verdi’s third opera, but his first hit.  The plot is creaky, relating biblical episodes of the Hebrew people in Babylon under King Nabuchadnezzer (Nabucco), but at 28 and after two failures, Verdi was in no position to be fussy about librettos.  In fact, Bible-themed Italian operas were dictated by a ban on the performance of normal operas on secular themes during the lenten season.  In order to keep the opera houses open, Impresarios commissioned works with a religious theme, which were allowed, based, however distantly, on the Bible—always the Old Testament as the New Testament was considered too sacred to use in a profane entertainment.  But whatever the biblical tale, a typically operatic love relationship would sneak in, often with the lovers in conflict because one is following the biblical God and the other is a child of the antagonists.  Rossini wrote two of these lenten operas, Cyrus in Babylon and Moses in Egypt.  Donizetti wrote one based on the story of Noah and the flood.  These operas, including Nabucco, were really oratorios in costume.  In other words, they were meant to be fairly static, and the chorus played an outsized role.  The message, of course, would be uplifting and show God conquering his enemies.

Thus Nabucco is a pagan king who is struck down by God at the very moment when he declares himself to be a god and demands to be worshiped.  He is restored to power when he acknowledges the Hebrew god, and quite unhistorically, he frees the Hebrew people who then declare him their king.  The virago, usurper ‘daughter’ of Nabucco, Abigaille, turns out to be the daughter of a slave, and in the end takes poison while the true daughter of Nabucco, Fenena, gets to marry her Hebrew lover, Ismaele.  It is a true Hollywood ending where the good guys beat the bad girl, and convert to Judaism!


What attracts me is not the unlikely story (which Maria Callas found ‘boring’ when she sang the role).  I think that there are two things which are very appealing about early Verdi operas, all of them: the great, youthful vigor in the music and the endless singable melody.  The first of these was new in opera, at least on the scale that Verdi offered, and surely it was what caused a frenzy when Nabucco debuted at La Scala in 1842.  The vigor of the cabalettas that Verdi wrote (“Salgo già il trono aurato,” “Come notte al sol fulgente,”  etc.) is pure, unrestrained youthful vigor distilled in music.  It was interesting in the intermission interview that the two septuagenerian stars (Domingo and Levine) were both attracted to the same irresistible  vigor and youth.  The other great attraction of Nabucco is the endless Italian melody.  Italian opera has been based on singable melody almost since the beginning, and all the way through Puccini’s operas.  No one was a greater melodist than Verdi, and that quality is evident from his very first opera Oberto to Falstaff, his last.  There are many great, singable melodies in Nabucco—Abigaille’s great aria “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno,” the Hebrew priest Zaccaria’s arias and prayers, Fenena’s Bellinian cantilena “O dischiuso è il firmamento,” and the many great ensembles.  But of course the greatest, maybe the most famous melody in Italian opera, the melody that made Verdi’s career, is the Chorus of the Hebrew People, “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorati,” Italy’s de facto national anthem.  Levine and his forces gave it the encore it deserves (although I have heard it sung more movingly in Italy).  Such wonderful melodies never grow stale and are a balm in this age, so devoid of great melody.

nabucco.met2The Met’s production itself, by Elijah Moshinsky, is an old one which would please those who love everything about old style opera: monumental sets, vaguely corresponding to the libretto, beautiful ‘biblical’ costumes via Cecil B. Demille epics, a chorus which comes on, stands in remarkably neat rows, and walks off, and grossly overweight principals who mostly stand and deliver.  Everyone sang well, including a particularly ravishing-voiced Jamie Barton in the small duties of Fenena.  Liudmyla Monastyrska was terrific—vocally—in the killer role of Abigaille, whose leaps, high notes, and vocal descents have been the death of many a less steely voice;  I liked Russell Thomas in the secondary tenorial duties of Ismaele and Dimitri Bellosselskiy was reasonably good as Zaccaria.  No one pretended to act much or care much about the story they were part of—except Placido Domingo, the phenomenal ex-tenor, now baritone, as Nabucco himself.  Domingo just goes on and on; he sang well and he acted like he cared about the story.  Not many 75 year olds would sing a major aria while lying face down on the stage, or walk down a long, unprotected flight of stairs.


It was all enjoyable.  The man next to me, who had never seen Nabucco before, commented on the beautiful music.  But it was obvious that this was an old production, not meant for the movies.  It all would have looked fine from the balcony in the opera house, but the camera made it look cheesy, and none of the principals was helped by the close-ups.

One curiosity for Northern Coloradoans planning to see Loveland Opera Theater’s production of Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor at the end of February or in early March is that the Intendant of La Scala had offered Temistocle Solera’s Nabucco libretto to Nicolai, who was trying to make a career in Italy at the time, before he offered it to Verdi.  Nicolai turned it down and wrote an opera called Il proscritto instead; it was a failure, and Nicolai went off to Vienna where he founded the Vienna Philharmonic and wrote The Merry Wives (in German).  When Nicolai found out that Verdi’s opera had been a great success, he was irate and disparaging, about the opera and Verdi’s talent as a composer.  The Merry Wives was Nicolai’s greatest success (he died weeks after the premiere).  He was wrong about Verdi, but he was a pretty good melodist himself.  If you like lively, singable melody, go and see it.

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network