Above: James Levine
Tuesday December 27th, 2016 - Listening to James Levine conduct tonight's 'alternate cast' performance of Verdi's NABUCCO at The Met was something of a revelation. The venerable Maestro was greeted by a sustained roar of cheers and applause when he was spot-lighted in the pit at the start of the evening. Within moments, he and the Met musicians had set the music blazing off the page.
The score seemed remarkably fresh...and important: one could understand immediately why this opera sent Verdi's star on its immortal trajectory. A great sense of passion and propulsion prevailed, but the more solemn passages also rang true. Chorus and orchestra were on high form, and the opera swept forward vividly. For all the sense of urgency that Maestro Levine brought to the music, there were also wonderfully detailed moments, most notably the 'busy' wind playing that bubbles under the melodic line of the quintet "S'appresan gl'istanti". Taking things into overdrive, the Maestro propelled the big ensemble/finale of Act II to an exhilarating finish.
Following a marvelous rendering of the overture - which highlights several themes to be heard later in the opera - the chorus drew us in to the plight of the Israelites; particularly moving was the passage for female voices over a rolling harp line.
As Zaccaria, bass Dmitry Belosselskiy's commanding voice immediately set the tone for an evening of big-scale, unstinting singing. Although his lowest notes were not firmly settled (he even left one out), the imposing voice rang grandly into the hall - I began to think what a Wotan/Wanderer he might be.
I'll go to hear any singer who tackles the role of Abigaille in Verdi's NABUCCO. Tonight, the Russian soprano Tatiana Melnychenko took on this fearsome music in her Met debut; it's her only scheduled Met performance of the season. In looking at her bio, it seems Ms. Melnychenko is making an international career by performing two roles: Abigaille and Lady Macbeth; she has already sung the former at Verona, Montreal, Barcelona, Covent Garden, and Liege. After two acts as Abigaille, I thought she'd be interesting to hear as Tosca, Minnie, Maddalena di Coigny, or Gioconda.
The soprano seemed a bit tentative at first: the voice showing some unsteadiness and a hesitancy to sing in full chest-voice. Soon, though, she got matters in hand, and in the trio with Fenena and Ismaele, Ms. Melnychenko did some nice - even pretty - soft singing. Nancy Fabiola Herrera, and Adam Diegel played the couple who wouldn't let opposing religious viewpoints stand in the way of their love. The tenor sang passionately in his ungrateful role whilst Ms. Herrera brought Mediterranean warmth to her vocalism, with strong dramatic accents and a nice dynamic mix.
Željko Lučić can be a very frustrating singer to listen to: the instrument is impressive, he can thunder forth or sustain a piano line, and his vocalism is imbued with an innate emotional quality; but so often, he wanders off pitch and that negates all the enjoyable aspects of his work. Tonight was one of his best performances in my experience, and while passing notes went slightly awry, the overall effect of his singing made a powerful impact.
All voices heretofore mentioned were in play during the dramatic moments where Ismaele saves Fenena from execution, Nabucco subjugates the Israelites, and their temple is set aflame; with Levine spurring them on, the first act ended excitingly.
We then move on to the great test-piece for soprano. Abigaille's discovery of the fact that she is in truth a slave rather than a princess is expressed in a passionate recitative spanning two octaves; the soprano dealt with this quite well, with touch of wildness here and there, and some good soft, reflective phrases thrown in. She scaled down her big, somewhat unwieldy voice to make a pleasing effect in the reflective cavatina "Anch'io dischiuso un giorno". Forewarned by the High Priest of Baal - sung by the young Serbian basso Sava Vemić with smouldering tone - of Fenena's treachery in betraying her faith, Ms. Melnychenko then tackled the great cabaletta "Salgo già del trono aurato", throwing in some insinuating piano phrases amid the eager, full-throttle expressions of her anticipated seizing of the throne. She handled the demands of this treacherous music successfully, if not with the total élan of Elena Souliotis on the classic Decca recording. Melnychenko spit out the words "...l'umile schiava" with venomous irony. The top C's were approached from slightly below, but then tonalized, and she sustained the final one to round-off the scena with overall positive marks.
Levine led the atmospheric prelude to the second scene of Act II with evident love for the music; the cellos sounded wonderful. In the great recitative "Vieni, O Levita" and the ensuing invocation "Tu sul labbro", Mr. Belosselskiy rolled out the tone in powerful, well-modulated phrases. The voice seems now more geared to the upper than the lower range, but he did sustain the concluding low-G to fine effect. People started applauding during the quiet postlude, spoiling the moment.
Abigaille rushes in, demanding that Fenena give up the crown; Ms. Herrera lashes out with a big retort: "Pria morirò...!" ("I'd sooner die!"). Suddenly Nabucco appears (he was rumored to be dead) and cries "Dal capo mio la prendi!" ("You'll have to take the crown from my head!").
Mr. Lučić (above) was so commanding here, and throughout the quintet that follows; his proclamation of himself as "god" (with thunderbolts greeting his blasphemy) and his truly affecting soft singing in his 'mad scene' maintained a very high level of dramatic vocalism. Ms. Melnychenko sustained the act's final A-flat securely.
I'd only planned to be there for the first half tonight; the excitement of the performance almost persuaded me to stay on, but the thought of a 40-minute intermission short-circuited that idea. On the 7th of January, I'll be at the final NABUCCO of the season and will surely stay to the end of that matinee performance.
It's to James Levine that true credit and thanks must go for serving up this exciting performance, reminding us yet again of Verdi's monumental place in the pantheon of operatic composers. The conductor not only gave the music great vitality but showed a keen attention to the needs of the singers. When Ms. Melnychenko seemed to want to slow down the pace in her cavatina, the conductor skillfully nudged her along, preventing the impetus from stalling.
The House was nearly full, and indeed two of the three remaining NABUCCO performances are sold out. In recent seasons, it's been the big, Met-sized productions that seem to be drawing crowds: TURANDOT, BOHEME, AIDA, and now NABUCCO. There's definitely something to be said for the atmosphere that develops when The Met is packed.