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A scene from Nabucco [Photo courtesy of Serbian National Theatre, Novi Sad]
22 Nov 2014

Nabucco in Novi Sad

After the horrors of Jagoš Marković’s production of Le Nozze di Figaro in Belgrade, I was apprehensive lest Nabucco in Serbia’s second city of Novi Sad on 27th October would be transplanted from 6th century BC Babylon to post-Saddam Hussein Tikrit or some bombed-out kibbutz in Beersheba.

Nabucco in Novi Sad

A review by Jonathan Sutherland

Above: A scene from Nabucco [Photo courtesy of Serbian National Theatre, Novi Sad]


Mercifully not. The straightforward reliable staging by Dejan Miladinović and effective costume designs by Jasna Petrović Badjarević were neither intrusive nor distracting. Despite having been first seen as long ago as 1983 when the opera was sung in Serbian, the production looked surprisingly fresh and functional.

A particularly pleasing production idea was during the Act III duet between Nabucco and Abigaille when the demonic anti-heroine destroys evidence of her low birth (Il foglio menzogner!). Instead of tearing up the incriminating document as indicated in the libretto, she smashes a clay tablet which is both historically much more accurate as paper didn’t exist in 6th century BC Babylon. This made a wonderful dramatic impact as the pieces shattered all over the stage. Another visual success was the enormous 5 metre long regal mantle Abigaille wears to ascend the throne which covered the entire flight of steps.

Due to earlier cuts (since restored) the opera was performed in three acts instead of the libretto’s stipulated four with Act II extending to the end of the Deh perdona, deh perdona duet between Abigaille and Nabucco. This meant that instead of the Va pensiero chorus almost ending Act III, it opened the last act of this three part version straight after the interval, which was dramatically much less effective.

Not just because of the justifiably celebrated Va pensiero chorus, Nabucco is an opera where the coro plays a major dramatic and musical role and in this regard the Novi Sad singers certainly didn’t disappoint. An impressive chorus of roughly 70 singers paid commendable attention to Verdi’s dynamics and markings. As with many large ensembles, there were one or two glitches in the presto concertante sections, especially the spirited Come notte a sol fulgente chorus with Zaccaria in Act I, Oh fuggite il maledetto that closes the ‘Jerusalem’ part of the opera and S'appressan gl'istanti d'un'ira fatale in Act II. The slower ensembles usually had better synchronization with the orchestra, especially Non far che i tuoi figli divengano preda at the end of the opening scena.

The famous Va pensiero chorus lost a lot of its customary impact due to the fact that the very young conductor Aleksandar Kojić (aged 30) chose a much more brisk tempo than one is accustomed to hearing. After all, it is marked largo in the partitura. The desperate longing for a patria perduta expressed so plaintively in the text and score was sadly missing. This was a supersonic Concorde flight on golden wings. Che peccato.

Such haste was even more curious as Kojić’s tempi for the rest of the performance were generally uncontroversial. Although coordination between pit and stage was occasionally a little fraught, this was by no means a shabby performance on the podium. String playing was generally acceptable, especially the cantabile cello introduction to Zaccaria’s recitative and Prigheria Vieni, o Levita! in Act II. There was some nice solo flute playing before Abigaille’s Anch'io dischiuso un giorno aria in Act II and again in Nabucco’s Dio di Giuda aria in Act IV. Less successful was the syncopated quaver horn punctuation in Va pensiero which was unduly heavy and had slight intonation problems.

Intonation problems would be a kind understatement to describe the performance of the Abigaille Valentina Milenković. Having had some kind of vocal crisis a few years ago, Madame Milenković essentially retired from the operatic stage and only sang an occasional Lisa in Pique Dame and Leonora in Il Trovatore but for some inexplicable reason chose to make her most recent comeback in one of the most diabolical roles Verdi ever inflicted on a soprano.

There was no coloratura, no mezzavoce, no chest notes, no lower register, no breath control, no phrasing, no piano technique - just an indescribably awful shriek at the very top of the range. The only identifiable aspect of her voice was a vibrato so wide the miserable Hebrews could have walked through it to freedom. Every ensemble was marred by her appalling screeching. In the Act II opening scena Anch'io dischiuso un giorno there was just a horrible whining, rasping noise. Diction and phrasing were a total blur. One wished the flute obbligato had continued without the vocal part.

But much worse was to come. The great cabaletta Salgo già del trono aurato was something that would have made Florence Foster Jenkins sound like Joan Sutherland. The fioratura was mush, the scale passages a murky blur, intonation seemed to cover about 3 semitones at once, the wide vibrato and wobble were totally out of control and mid-register notes inaudible. The top C at l'umil schiava a supplicar had your suffering reviewer groping for the earplugs. Perhaps Madame Milenković should consider La Duchesse du Crakentorp in La Fille du Regiment as her next comeback role.

The demanding and dramatically vital role of Zaccaria was sung by the Serbian bass Goran Krneta bravely trying to cope with a ridiculous Santa Claus beard. Despite having solid low notes, good projection and a dependable middle voice, his upper register needs a lot of work. Under any kind of pressure it tightened badly and made a rather unpleasant pinched sound. Intonation problems were noticeable in the Act IV à capella scena with chorus and Immenso Jeovha chi non ti sente was noticeably below pitch. Regrettably for the drama, Zaccaria’s important confrontations with Nabucco had little anthemic impact or emotive power. Oh trema insano! Questa è di Dio la stanza! at the end of Act I was particularly lame.

The role of Ismaele was sung by another young Serbian singer, Nenad Čiča. Certainly it is not the greatest role Verdi ever created for tenor, although its vocal importance in the ensembles is significant. Mr Čiča was clearly very nervous throughout and as a result, his voice often became badly constricted, especially in the upper register. Acting was definitely not his strong point either. His reaction to the fury of the Levites in Act II when he is ostracized for protecting Fenene from Zaccaria’s intended slaughter (Il maledetto non ha fratelli) was about as bland as if he had misplaced his breakfast bagel.

The object of Ismaele’s passion and obstinence, Fenene, was sung by a mature Serbian mezzo Violeta Srećković. She had a reasonable mezzovoce but nothing remarkable. Her important but musically underwhelming scena in Act IV (Oh dischiuso è il firmamento) was acceptable in the middle range but like Goran Krneta, very tight in the upper register. The High Priest of Baal sung by young Serbian bass Željko Andrić was a bit hooty in projection but vocally and dramatically reasonably effective. His scena Eccelsa donna, che d'Assiria il fato Reggi, le preci ascolta in Act III was more than satisfactory. The lesser roles of Anna (an older well-focused singer called Laura Pavlović) and Abdallo (Igor Ksionžik) were competently sung by the former and forgettably managed by the latter. It was more a case of small role, small voice. Basta.

The performer with anything but a small voice was the Nabucco of Dragutin Matić. Still only 33 years old, he first studied in Belgrade then in Würzburg Germany under the celebrated soprano Cheryl Studer. The grueling tessitura of the role is in many ways similar to that of Abigaille in that the demands Verdi places on this new kind of ‘high baritone’ are formidable in the extreme. Dragutin Matić has the robust masculine vocal colour of Matteo Manuguerra, the warm rounded mezzovoce tones of Piero Cappuccilli and the ringing top register of Renato Bruson. It was not surprising to learn he started his singing career as a tenor. There was real power in S'oda or me! Babilonesi without losing any intonation or musicality and the explosive line non son più re, son Dio!! was delivered with terrifying force and menace. Nabucco’s prayer to the God of the Hebrews to save Fenene (Dio di Giuda! l'ara e il tempio) and following cabaletta O prodi miei, seguitemi concluding with Di mia corona al sol in Act IV were unquestionably the musical highlights of the evening.

At the curtain calls Matić was loudly applauded by the audience which numbered only a handful of people. In fact the whole performance felt more like a closed Sitzprobe. Apparently the explanation for the extremely low attendance (despite seat prices ranging from €3 to €6.5) is that the production has been in the repertoire for over 30 years and locals are not particularly interested in seeing it again. Certainly once word got out that Valentina Milenković was appearing to crucify the role of Abigaille, only musical masochists or those expecting to experience a Balkan version of Florence Foster Jenkins were prepared to endure such a bizarre night at the opera. The Marx Brothers would have loved it — Verdi less so.

Jonathan Sutherland

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