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Recordings

Giuseppe Verdi: Nabucco
10 Apr 2006

VERDI: Nabucco

This 2001 Vienna State Opera production of Verdi’s first smash hit, Nabucco, serves as a textbook example of the “modern dress” production style, for better or worse – and probably, for both.

Giuseppe Verdi: Nabucco

Leo Nucci, Maria Guleghina, Marina Domashenko, Giacomo Prestia, Miroslav Dvorsky, Choir and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, Fabio Luisi (cond.)

TDK DVWW-OPNAB [DVD]

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Stage director Gunter Kramer begins with a pantomime scene under the overture – a strategy that can provoke immediate antipathy in some viewers. Here, a small group of children engage in solitary play, barely interacting. A ballerina twirls, one young boy plays with a puppet (Punch? Or Judy?) on a toy stage set, another boy with a rocking-horse, and a second young lady, in black, regards herself in a mirror, then shoves the ballerina aside and imitates her.

With the overture finished, the children leave, but their toys remain onstage, most conspicuously, the toy stage. It took two people – Manfred Voss and Petra Buchholz – to create the bare stage design of projected Hebrew script for a background, with a glass case holding the crown and a sword. The chorus crowds on, dressed in mid-century overcoats and hats, with baggage strewn about. This evokes the images of Jews being gathered for deportation, and although the validity of the historic parallel can be questioned, the dramatic intention is strong and provocative.

The camera direction (Anton Reitzenstein) here strives too hard to add movement to a static scene, and by picking on details and individual faces, dilutes the theatrical impact of the crowd scene. Giacomo Prestia delivers Zaccaria’s aria with a sizeable but unsophisticated instrument, and he will be the lesser of the five principals of the evening.

Absolutely stunning in a white shift, Marina Domashenko would steal the show if she had more to do as Fenena. She delivers her solo impeccably, and when involved in a scene acts a most sympathetic Fenena. She can be a bit blank when not given something to do.

Miroslav Dvorsky (called Miro in the credits) may make for a surprisingly Slavic and strapping nephew to the King of Jerusalem, but he sings with robust passion, and certainly more impressively than he did in San Francisco in Tosca a season or two ago.

Ultimately, a successful Nabucco comes down to the title role and its Abigaille, and here Vienna scores with Leo Nucci as the King of Babylon and Maria Guleghina as his ostensible daughter. In a dark blue double-breasted suit, Nucci makes a dramatic appearance, suddenly rising amidst the Jewish refugees. The director places a lot of the dramatic action on Nucci’s shoulders, including his reaction to an invisible lighting bolt from above (where else?). Nucci has, if Opera Today readers will allow, a sort of homely dramatic power that works well in this role, and his long solo in part four earns a passionate response from the audience, perhaps more for his commitment than the occasionally raspy delivery.

Glamorous in a gorgeous dark blue gown, not unlike those worn at operatic galas, Guleghina is caught at the height of her powers. Never a beautiful voice, she provides instead a viscerally exciting performance, where any imperfection is irrelevant to the final effect. And here she is able to make Abigaille’s final scene more than an obligatory afterthought, and truly cap the evening off.

Thanks to these singers, this Nabucco has strengths enough to deserve viewing; ultimately, they triumph over an inconsistent, even incoherent production. If the updating is to mid-20th century, why does Zaccaria take a swig from a very 1990s’ water bottle before an aria? Why are Zaccaria and Fenena visible in the shadows behind Abigaille in her solo scene? Couldn’t Nabucco indicate his determination to save Fenena’s life by something other than straitening his tie with grim resolve? When Abigaille’s henchmen ostentatiously set fire to the toy stage set, does that equate the theater with a holy temple? And when those same henchmen carry mirrors to reflect Abigaille’s image back at her, does that mean she is the young girl admiring herself in the overture’s pantomime? So the other children must be….oh no. Too far to go for too little reward….

In the end, viewers would do well to forgive the production its failings and admire the singers and one other vital element – the brilliant performance of the Vienna orchestra under the inspired leadership of Fabio Luisi. His leadership blazes away with urgent rhythms and strong yet stylish attack.

The Metropolitan Opera filmed a Nabucco around this time, also with Guleghina. That production, although nothing brilliant, at least has a rough-hewn handsomeness and much less to quibble over. Samuel Ramey’s Zaccaria scores way ahead over Prestia’s in Vienna; otherwise, the Vienna cast has the edge.

And then there are the not inestimable pleasures of a Verona production, which beggars description and must be seen to be disbelieved.

So for those able to ignore some missteps in the production, the best moments of this Vienna Nabucco earn the DVD a cautious recommendation.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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