Met Opera Live
Callas, writing to her husband Meneghini from Naples in 1949, where she was performing a run of Verdi’s Nabucco for the only time in her life, said ‘the opera itself has beautiful music, but it’s also a big bore!’ That seems just, but it goes on being done fairly often, mainly on the strength of the chorus ‘Va, pensiero’, Italy’s unofficial national anthem, and of Abigaille’s Act III aria and the meaty part for the title character, who is provided with one of the relatively few baritone mad scenes, and ends up as a convert to the Hebrew god. The plot is rather complicated, considering there are only five main characters, who are locked in relationships of concealed fatherhood, elaborate deceptions and religious hostilities.
The first thing to be grateful for is that Elijah Moshinsky didn’t take the opportunity, irresistible to almost all operatic directors over the past thirty years, to turn Verdi’s drama into a contemporary commentary on the Palestine-Israel conflict. It is set firmly BC, and the sets and costumes – the metal helmets are the only ones I’ve seen in connection with opera, apart from cartoons of Wagnerian heroines, for many years – never let you forget it.
The set is a colossal revolve, of impressive-looking solidity, and enormous numbers of steps, negotiated by the singers, not all of whom are slim, with dexterity. The cast is uneven. Presumably Plácido Domingo’s determination to sing as many of Verdi’s baritone roles as possible was a deciding factor in this revival. He acts well, but as always now his voice sounds like that of a tenor trying to find lower notes than he has – the immensely impressive Liudmyla Monastyrka, playing Abigaille could have lent him some of hers – and he lacks the volume to sound authoritative, a necessity in his opening scene.
Nonetheless, the seriousness of his performance is moving. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Dmitry Belosselskiy’s Zaccaria, full of effort rarely rewarded. His top is woofy and his lower register an atonal growl, and he is of the Russian stand-and-deliver school of acting. The tenor Russell Thomas is an ardent and intelligent – so far as that is possible – Ismaele, the tenuous love interest of the opera, and Jamie Barton is a tolerable Fenena, but it is Monastyrska who lifts the performance out of routine, supported by the magnificent Met orchestra under James Levine, whose control of the musical side is complete: one might only wish that the performance was a bit more rough-edged, earthy.
‘Va, pensiero’, so immaculate that it was encored, didn’t sound like the voice of a captive people longing for freedom. And some cutting wouldn’t have been out of place. The live performance with Callas, happily preserved, was cut, so she would have found this one a very big bore.