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Monday, May 13, 2013

Recordings Review: And the Chorus Shall Lead Them

The Superconductor Verdi series rolls on with Nabucco.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Detail from the Ishtar Gate © 2013 The Pergamon Museum.
Like the weight and splendor of King Nebachudnezzar's massive Ishtar Gate (that guarded the entrance to Bablyon before winding up at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin) there's nothing subtle about Nabucco.

Verdi's third opera (and first smash hit) is a blood-and-thunder retelling of the Bablyonian captivity of the Old Testament. It opens with the sack of Jerusalem and the triumphat entrance of the Babylonian conqueror Nebachudnezzar. From there, the plot boils up a story of Nabucco's spiritual struggles with guilt as well as his fight for the throne with his psychotic daughter Abagaille. This is another Verdi collaboration with Temostocle Solera, who based the story on a French play and the events recounted in the Book of Daniel. This was Verdi's third opera to premiere at La Scala.

Written in 1841, this score shows the young Verdi leaving comedy behind after the dismal failure of Un Giorno di Regno. Here, he started master the gifts that made his earlier Oberto a small success, creating a blend of accessable melody with dramatic excitement and (unintentionally) moving Italian opera forward from the bel canto stylee. In addition to slashing brass chords and fanfares (usually accompanied by bass drum and cymbals, Nabucco makes frequent use of the steady four-note rhythm that accompanies so many of the composer's earlier vocal lines.

Among the three recordings of this opera in the catalogue, the one under consideration is from 1978, under the baton of a young firebrand conductor named Riccardo Muti. Mr. Muti takes a hard-nosed approach to this music, digging into the accompaniment of the cabalettas and lending spice to the big climaxes that end each of the four acts. With his brisk tempos and muscular leadership of the , Nabucco is over before you know it.

He is helped by a strong cast of Verdi veterans. Matteo Managuerra may not be a household name among baritones, but he is a colorful, characterful singer who tracks the king's evolution from fecklessness to enlightenment and redemption. (As we get deeper into Verdi's "galley years," Mr. Managuerra stars in a lot of recordings.) He is matched by Renata Scotto, at a peak in her career and singing fearlessly in the very demanding role of Abagaille. "Salgo già del trono aurato " is a chilling portrait of wickedness as Abagaille plans to slaughter the captive Jews.

As Fenena, the libretto's (relatively) "good girl," Elena Obratszova brings her big, wide mezzo voice to this smaller, supporting part. She is matched by Veriano Luchetti  as Ismaele, a credible tenor with a big voice who never achieved household name status. Their Act I trio with Ms. Scotto is an early treat, sumptuously sung and expertly accompanied. Nicolai Ghiaurov is a potent presence as Zaccaria, the prophet who serves as the onstage reminder of God's presence in these momentous events.

Although Verdi created a memorable soprano villain in Abagaille and a tortured villain-turned-hero in Nabucco, the real star of this show is the chorus. Specifically it's one chorus, the Act IV "Va, pensiero" that became a signature tune on the streets of Milan, one that still has anthemic meaning for the Italian people. The famous story about Italians adopting the chorus as a nationalist anthem may be apocryphal, but it only adds to the legends that have built up around this opera.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.