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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Nabucco

Plácido Domingo is the king of Babylon in Verdi's hokey but effective Old Testament opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Plácido Domingo (seen here as Oreste in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride.) sings the title role in Verdi's Nabucco. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera
Verdi's early opera is an Old Testament epic with a towering title role and a chorus that you will never forget. For this revival, Placído Domingo steps into the gold boots of Nebuchednezzar, king of Babylon, captor of Jews and finally, convert to the faith.

What is Nabucco?
Nabucco is Giuseppe Verdi's third opera and the composer's first real success. It is known for its anthemic chorus "Va pensiero", its driving oom-pa-pa score and the difficulty of both the title role and the part of Abagaille, a steep challenge for a baritone and a soprano worth their salt.

What's Nabucco about?
This is the story of the Babylonian captivity as chronicled in the Book of Jeremiah. The Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem in 586 BC. In this version of the story by librettist Temistocle Solera,  Hebrews were captured and taken back to Babylon. The plot of the opera tells of the arrogant king and his gradual conversion to Judaism and attempts to save the Jews from the depradations of his vicious daughter Abagaille.

Why should I go see Nabucco?
A full performance of this opera in the theater can be very powerful. Verdi experimented here, driving the plot along with the force of an overseer's whip and making his outsized Biblical characters spring to red-blooded life. The reasons to see this revival are two-fold: Placido Domingo's presence in the title role (his latest in a run of performances of the Verdi baritone parts in his later years) and the amazing Met chorus, whose rendition of "Va pensiero" should bring both chills and Italian patriotic fervor.

Who's in it?
Besides Mr. Domingo (who sings all the performances save two) Liudmyla Monastyrska and Tatiana Melnychenko will each take on the role of Abagaille. Jamie Barton sings the smaller but challenging part of Fenena. Tenor Russell Thomas will sing the dinky tenor role of Ismaele, which is the part that Mr. Domingo used to sing in this opera many years ago. James Levine conducts the entire run.

How's the production?
The Met staging of Nabucco is as old-fashioned as the opera itself. Elijah Moshinsky ordered a heavy unit set that suggests Babylonian architecture in the shape of a huge ziggurat. This giant set is rotated and re-lit throughout the evening taking the form of pagan temples, palace gardens and even the banks of the Euphrates river for the singing of "Va, pensiero."

When does Nabucco open?
The opera returns to the Met repertory on Dec. 12.

Where do I get tickets?
Tickets  are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Which recordings do you recommend?

Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Lamberto Gardelli (Decca, 1965)
This is one of Tito Gobbi's few studio recordings of a Verdi opera, made under ideal conditions with the Decca team. It is also one of the few recordings to feature a star that never quite took off: soprano Elena Souliotis. Lamberto Gardelli would go on to record most of the early Verdi operas.

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Riccardo Muti (EMI-WBC 1978)
The main attraction here is Riccardo Muti, who was just starting to build his reputation as a Verdi expert. This is a driven, detail oriented performance with a fine baritone (Matteo Managuerra) in the title role and Renata Scotto in burn-the-village mode in support.

Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG, 1982)
This was another early Sinopoli recording with a good cast slightly past its sell-by date. Piero Cappucilli is a sensitive, finely tuned presence as Nabucco. Less subtle are hypersoprano Ghena Dimitrova as Abagaille and Plácido Domingo himself, slumming in the small part of Ismaele.
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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.