Met’s tired “Nabucco” revival shows flashes of inspiration from supporting cast
An alignment of stars at the Metropolitan Opera can produce memorable evenings, bringing together extraordinary performers on to a single stage. When the stars in question have faded somewhat, called into service more for the box-office potential of their names than for their current abilities, the results are often not so splendid.
Ironically, Plácido Domingo, the superstar in large part responsible for filling the house for Monday’s season premiere of Nabucco went largely unacknowledged at his first appearance, so well had the wig department done its work. His performance as the Babylonian king of the title, alas, was mixed, at best.
While there is admittedly a slight thrill at seeing one of the twentieth century’s greatest tenors stride back onto the Met’s stage as a baritone, the satisfaction of nostalgia only lasts so far. Whatever gravitas his physical presence may import, Domingo can no longer command authority with his voice alone. His singing is effortful and sounds tired; while that weariness lent a certain pathos to his Act IV aria “Dio di Giuda” (in which the humbled, despairing Nebuchadnezzar proclaims his faith in the Abrahamic God), it was hard to take seriously Act II’s stunning declaration, “Non son più re,” the great hubristic moment of self-deification, with Domingo running short of breath.
As for the other major draw on the evening’s playbill, James Levine’s evening in the pit followed the same basic pattern as many of his recent outings. Flashes of greatness, such as the majestic opening of the overture, competed with long stretches that showed little of the richness of detail that long characterized his finest work. Lapses of ensemble, though mostly minor, were not infrequent.
The vocal star was Liudmyla Monastyrska in the role of Abigaille, the fierce usurper who conspires to seize her father’s throne. Her voice, on its face, does not sound like the world’s most subtle or supple instrument; she has such vocal weight that it’s astonishing to hear her navigate the role’s fioratura as accurately as she does. Though her primary mode is an intense blaze, crackling at the bottom and bordering on shrillness at the top, she was able to rein in her voice in more intimate moments, such as her glowing pleas for forgiveness in the opera’s final bars.
Dmitry Belosselskiy is fast becoming a reliable option for rich-voiced avatars of power. On Monday he crafted a sage, nuanced portrayal of the high priest Zaccaria, bringing a flowing, lyrical bass of color and depth to the role. As Nabucco’s virtuous daughter Fenena, Jamie Barton did not soar with such ease as she usually does, but was affecting and sensitive in her prayer on the threshold of martyrdom in Act IV. Russell Thomas was in fine voice as her lover Ismaele, finding a noble bearing and singing with robust, caramel tone.
Making his company debut on Monday night, Sava Vemić, a member of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Program, strutted proudly as the High Priest of Baal, showing a firm, if somewhat breathy, bass. Danielle Talamantes was endearing as Zaccaria’s sister Anna, while company stalwart Eduardo Valdes brought his usual poise to the role of Abdallo.
Nabucco is certainly not the only Verdi opera to give the chorus a starring role, though it features perhaps the most memorable highlights. The peerless Met choristers, of course, were up to the task, sounding by turns triumphant, forceful, desperate, and tender. The celebrated “Va, pensiero” chorus glowed, tinged softly with quiet grief, earning its customary encore.
Elijah Moshinsky’s 2001 production, with its grandly idealized sets designed by John Napier, impresses with its ability to evince awe without evoking specificity of time or place–though that generality often becomes a lack of focus. In particular, the costumes by Andreane Neofitou, in their attempts to avoid strict adherence to any one historical era, instead lashed out at many, touching styles from Biblical Israelites to eighteenth-century European peasantry.
Maybe Domingo does still have something to offer as a performer—indeed, he will reprise his most successful role from the past several years, Germont père, in a revival of La Traviata later this season. But continued outings like this one, in roles so clearly unsuited to his voice, only serve as evidence for the suggestions that Domingo’s ongoing baritonal renaissance is an unfortunate exercise in vanity.
Nabucco runs through January 7 at the Metropolitan Opera. A second cast starring Željko Lučić, Tatiana Melnychenko, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, and Adam Diegel performs on December 27. Lučić also sings the title role on December 30. metopera.org