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Verdi Dazzles at the Met

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jan 1st, 2017

Liudmyla Monastyrska and Zeljko Lučić

Over the past six years Verdi’s 1842 opera Nabucco (the story of Nebuchadnezzar) has enjoyed a remarkable revival. While minor details of its historical grounding contain liberties, the dynamics of the opera remain timeless. Unlike many operas, Nabucco has no expiration date.  It is timeless in archetype of a population victimized by lust for narcissistic power. Likewise, the dialectic of the good daughter and the bad daughter, while schematic, remains rooted in human nature. As an opera, the music is modest yet effective in its orchestration for an ensemble rather than full orchestra. 

The score intends to highlight the singing, whether solo or chorus. Verdi’s talent for dramatizing voice has always lurked unobtrusively in the background. In this case the dialectic between the malignant force of one daughter brilliantly contrasts with the chorus of captives. It’s a contrast with sociological resonance, a resonance for all seasons. And, yes, it is the chorus with whom the audience identifies, even as it charts the clever self-confidence and sophistry of the abuse of power by an authoritarian individual who is ultimately irrelevant to the march of history. Librettist Temistocles Solera, influenced by Hegel, makes excellent use of Heraclitean triads as the psychological force in history through the process of spontaneously evolving opposites, which is why Solera’s historical liberties with plot may appear somewhat strange to a modern audience.

The morality of Verdi’s work remains encased in a modest musical serenity so powerful that it is earthshaking, which is why I would have preferred that the awesome pagan idol in this current production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House would have collapsed (as in the opera’s stage directions). That was my only quibble in this wonderful production led by inspiring and beloved maestro James Levine (depicted in teaser photo) in this brief return to the Metropolitan.  (There are several more performances scheduled, yet the cast rotates.)

In the performance I heard, soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska excelled; her voice projects a completely natural feeling, smooth, compelling and forceful. Tenor Russell Thomas, one of the performance highlights of Bard’s Summerscape last summer, was also magnificent. Yet the real plum remains the Met chorus singing with such powerful and empathetic unity that to hear them creates a transcendental religious experience. They begin and end together, hitting every note with impeccable diction. They are the soul of this performance—and that is what Verdi intended.

The story of the captive Hebrews offered dramatic allegory for the enslavement of Lombardy to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite the censorship ban, the audience rebelled in demanding an encore, which was given. This third opera (of eventually 28) put Verdi at the forefront of Risorgimento. After all, Verdi was from Parma and it was eventually the House of Savoy in Parma that lit the fuse for Italian independence, and eventually unification under Garibaldi in 1861.

One of the two famous chorus numbers sung in the streets of Italy for decades appears in the video below.