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Friday, December 23, 2016

Opera Review: The Lion of Babylon

Plácido Domingo returns to the Met in Nabucco.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
King for a day: Placido Domingo raves in the title role of Nabucco.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
The third act of Placido Domingo's long career has entered its late summer. Starting in the last decade, the superstar tenor began taking on baritone roles in Verdi operas, expanding his repertory at a time when most singers decide to retire. The title role in the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Verdi's Nabucco is the fourth Verdi baritone part that he has sung at the Met since 2009.  Mr. Domingo is now 75, but on Thursday night he  brought fresh energy and a bold stage presence to the role.

Nabucco is Verdi's third opera. It was written following the death of his first wife and the colossal failure of the early comedy Un Giorno di Regno. It premiered at La Scala in 1841. It was was chosen for that season partly because Babylonian costumes were available, left over from a ballet on the same subject. The opera was a smash, a blood-and-thunder retelling of the imprisonment of the Jews in Babylon following the sack of Jerusalem by the Chaldean king Nebachudnezzar. The Italian people particulary identified with the Act III chorus "Va, pensiero." Sung by the captured Hebrews as they await genocide, this number became the opera's best known tune and Verdi's first "hit."

Mr. Domingo brought that thunder to the role of the Babylonian king who sacked Jerusalem only to (eventually) discover faith in God. In Act I, he strode through the temple doors and unleashed that familiar voice, thrilling the sold-out house. His instrument has darkened in color but retains some of its old tenor characteristics, especially when pressure is exerted. However, as Nabucco descended into madness and tragedy, Mr. Domingo found his true low range. He sang the Act IV prayer "Dio di Judah" with a hushed pianissimo that held the audience riveted. Most importantly, Mr. Domingo made Nabucco's conversion and newfound faith a believable moment.

The opera's villain is Abagaille, who uses the opportunity of Nabucco's madness to dethrone him and seize power. She was played with hair-raising ferocity by Liudmyla Monastyrska. The soprano dealt admirably with the pitfalls of this role, from the dizzying intervals in her Act II cabaletta  "Salgo già del trono aurato" to the little curlicues of fioratura that signify her character's growing madness in the later scenes. Had the leading role been sung by anyone other than Mr. Domingo, she would have stolen the evening.

The third protagonist of Nabucco is Zaccaria, the prophet who leads the Hebrews both in Jerusalem and Babylon. Bass Dmitri Belosselskiy sang with resonant tone and a fatherly stage presence, serving as the story's moral anchor. Mezzo Jamie Barton shone in the brief role of Fenena, Nabucco's daughter. Her Act IV aria on the scaffold was a late highlight. Russell Thomas made the most of his few opportunities as Ismaele, Fenena's lover. This is one of the shortest tenor roles in Verdi, and one of the least dramatically significant.

The chorus is essential to this opera's success. Here, the throng of well-trained singers played both the oppressed Jews and (to a lesser extent) their thuggish Babylonian captors. They appeared arrayed on the big turntable pyramid set for "Va, pensiero." This is not so much a traditional chorus but an aria for many voices, sung with taut rhythmic control from James Levine in the pit. (Mr. Levine granted the audience the pleasure of hearing this famous number twice.) The singers' most powerful moment was "Inmenso Jehovah," sung a cappella in the work's grand finale.

At first listen, Verdi's tunes appear to be crude constructs along the familiar triple rhythm heard in so much 19th century Italian opera. However, Nabucco is a sophisticated wolf in simple clothing. Mr. Levine proved adept, mastering moments like the tricky rhythmic transition between the slow and fast sections of the overture. Most importantly, there were no static moments, in a show that is essentially a series of Biblical tableaux. This is the Met's last revival of 2016, and happily, it is one of the most successful.

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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.