Worthy vocal moments in Met’s “Nabucco” undone by flat drama

September 28, 2011
By Caitlin McKechney

Maria Guleghina as Abigaille and Zeljko Lucic in the title role of Verdi's "Nabucco." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Following the hype and excitement of the opening-night premiere of Anna Bolena starring Anna Netrebko, on Tuesday night the Metropolitan Opera was back to business with a revival of Nabucco in the sturdy Elijah Moshinsky production.

Written at 28, Verdi’s third opera is one of his few early works to remain in the canon and for good reason.  Even though the young Verdi was still finding his own post-bel canto compositional voice, the scenario of the conflict between the oppressed Jews and their Babylonian rulers touched on themes of national pride and determination that clearly rang true for the nationalistic Italian composer whose country was still under Austrian rule.

But despite its magnificent choruses and moments of musical brilliance, Nabucco lacks the consistent melodic inspiration and dramatic motivation of the mature Verdi to come.  It would take a cast of singer-actors with the collective energy of a defibrillator to bring the requisite vitality and relevance to this work. And with only fleeting dramatic engagement by the Met’s principals, the current revival falls just a bit short.

Maria Guleghina sang Abigaille, a perennial role for her in this house, with great power and prowess, maneuvering between the coloratura passages and full-voice attacks with apparent ease. The Ukrainian soprano lacks beauty in her chest voice, unfortunately so, since the role has many moments of low-lying potential money notes.  Guleghina made up for it with dramatic intensity and sheer vocal power, enough to be convincing in the opening scene where she enters wielding a sword, and her pleading despair in her touching final scene.

Željko Lucic was a fine Nabucco, though often stiff and lacking in depth in his long monologues. Still, he knows how to caress a Verdi aria, using impressive dynamic contrast and strength.  The duet between Lucic and Guleghina was a highlight of the evening, with both singers able to deliver the drama and the notes in a scene that foreshadows the more incisive characterization of Verdi works to come.

Yonghoon Lee possesses a gorgeous tenor voice that made you wish the role of Ismaele was more extensive.  Always committed to his character, his voice ringing with true idiomatic squillo, the Korean tenor delivered a visceral and compelling performance.

Renée Tatum, a second-year member of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, sang the role of Fenena. Though ideal for the role by virtue of her beauty and empathetic stage presence, at this point the young mezzo lacks the requisite power and roundness of sound for this repertoire.

Carlo Colombara’s bass voice sounded brittle in the role of Zaccaria, the High Priest of the Hebrews, with shallow high notes, though he redeemed himself in the second act. Singing very well in supporting roles were David Crawford as the High Priest of Baal, Hugo Vera as Abdallo and Amber Wagner as Anna, Zaccaria’s sister.

The chorus is the fulcrum of any Nabucco performance, and on Tuesday they proved somewhat frustrating to watch.  While undoubtedly a directorial choice, having the chorus stiffly lined up, neither acting nor interacting, did little to convey the power of the massed ensemble scenes. But the chorus rose to the big moment of Va, pensiero magnificently in singing that was powerful and emotionally riveting.

Much of the beauty of that moment could be attributed to conductor Paolo Carignani, who led the Met Orchestra throughout the evening with elegance and dramatic punch.

J. Knighten Smit directed competently, though the staging needed more dramatic passion from the actors to bring to life. Andreane Neofitou’s costumes were beautiful though not obtrusive. John Napier’s set design, though a bit flat in the first scene, was properly imposing — creating contrasts of light and dark that reflected the shifts in political power as well as the bright hope of the Hebrew slaves even on the brink of execution, aided by Howard Harrison’s evocative lighting.

Considering current international world events, not least in the Middle East, it may be time to infuse Nabucco with a more contemporary realization, though doing so is fraught with peril and unlikely to go over well with more conservative Met audience members. In the meantime, the current revival needs to gin up some dramatic sparks from its cast and move beyond park and bark. For all its faults, Nabucco deserves better.

Nabucco runs through November 17. metopera.org; 212-362-6000

Caitlin McKechney is a mezzo-soprano, writer, visual artist, and voice teacher. caitlinmckechney.com

3 Responses to “Worthy vocal moments in Met’s “Nabucco” undone by flat drama”

  1. Posted Sep 28, 2011 at 1:31 pm by Shirley Herron

    So glad Yonghoon Lee seems to be fulfulling his promise — I saw him in his debut week at the Met last year In “Don Carlo”, and felt at the time we were so fortunate to hear this tenor who seemed to be on the brink of a major career

  2. Posted Sep 28, 2011 at 10:04 pm by John David

    Agree about Lee. He is a marvel! And breaking stereotypes in an important way! Bless him!

  3. Posted Sep 29, 2011 at 11:08 pm by Anna Bolena

    I also agree about Lee – he is a very promising tenor, am looking forward to hearing more from him.

    I disagree about the comment on Guleghina though and would like to know what is meant by: “lacks beauty in her chest voice,” – how is a beautiful chest-voice supposed to sound? We are talking about Verdi’s Abigaille, not about any Mozart character.

    By the way, Guleghina is not Ukranian as she already stated in many interviews.

    One more thing: but I also disagree about Lucic lacking depth in his monologues. I think (and I am not alone) he is the best baritone for this repertoire and on opening night he also sounded great as did Guleghina. Ever since I saw both of them in Macbeth 2 – 3 years ago (and on the DVD at least 1000000 times) I can not listen to any other Macbeth.

    In any case, thank you for sharing your opinion.