Verdi: Nabucco / Nucci, Ribeiro, Zanellato, Mariotti [blu-ray]

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VERDI Nabucco Michele Mariotti, cond; Leo Nucci (Nabucco); Dimitra Theodossiou (Abigaille); Bruno Ribeiro (Ismaele); Riccardo Zanellato (Zaccaria); Anna Maria Chiuri (Fenena); Alessandro Spina (High Priest of Baal); Teatro Regio di Parma O & Ch C MAJOR 720504 (Blu-ray: 137:00 opera, 10:00, bonus) Live: Parma 2009

After the precipitous failure of his opera buffa Un giorno di regno, and the recent deaths of his young wife and small son, Giuseppe Verdi was emotionally shattered and had to be reluctantly coaxed back to work by Milan’s La Scala intendant, Bartolemeo Merelli. Verdi himself made much of this in his own often over-romanticized accounts, saying he had quit the business entirely and never wanted to look at another libretto, but in actuality, what else could the young composer do? He was heavily in debt, could not make a proper living as a musician in his hometown of Busseto, and was still under contract with the prestigious Milanese opera house to produce two more operas. Opera was where fame and fortune lay in Italy. We will never know for sure, but I am of the opinion that Verdi, though shaken by his failure, never really lost total confidence in his own ability to do the work and make a success of it. Whatever the case, Merelli was patient and understanding, never losing his own faith in the young maestro, and fortunately, he had just the right libretto to lure Verdi back to work. It was Nabucco, penned by La Scala house poet, Temistocle Solera, and rejected earlier by the older and better known Prussian composer Otto Nicolai. The story tells of the conquest and captivity of the Jews in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco) and the nationalistic strivings of a whole people to get their country back and regain their freedom. This must have plucked a sympathetic string or two in the heart of the young Italian nationalist Verdi, and a good thing for us it did.

With the composition of Nabucco the music began to get noticeably better. Verdi tightened the dramatic pacing, began to write more effective set pieces and began changing the choral pieces and ensembles into his own unique style rather than imitating his predecessors. Nabucco is still musically uneven, and a bit of a one-hit opera, but that one hit, the choral hymn “Va, pensiero” is a monster gorilla of a hit, at one time the unofficial anthem of Italian nationalism and beloved by most Italians (and most opera lovers) to this day. There is also some quite good music for the baritone Nabucco, the bass Zaccaria, and the dramatic soprano Abigaille, a few exciting ensembles, and another well-written chorus or two to mark Verdi’s passage into the ranks of master craftsmen.

This set, from the Teatro Regio in Parma, recorded in 2009, is the third in the Tutto Verdi project overseen by the Parma opera house in partnership with C Major. The goal is to present on Blu-ray disc all of Verdi’s operas in honor of his 200th birthday this year. I have also reviewed sets Nos. 1 and 2 this month, and the results are mixed so far. The Parma forces seem to do well enough in Verdi’s more obscure works, but they will have to step it up to be truly competitive in the more popular operas such as this one.

Nabucco takes place in both Jerusalem and various locales in Babylon, but Parma only gives us one unit-set. It starts out as a monolithic wall with pillars to the sides for the Jerusalem scene (the wall of the temple?), then three panels drop out to give us three attractively framed panels of activity above stage level and a set of stairs in front to encompass all the action in Babylon. No hanging gardens, unfortunately. Costumes are generically biblical for the principals, but vaguely modern for the chorus with much use of shawls and yarmulkes. It looks like Jewish on the cheap to go along with Babylon on the cheap, but all of it works well enough. The king, Nabucco, is sung by veteran baritone Leo Nucci who has sung this role often enough to perform it in his sleep. Which, on occasion, is just what it looks like he is doing. Nucci’s voice is still fit enough at age 68, and he sings pretty well here, but his acting is a bit of the old school, with broad gestures, large facial expressions, and exaggerated body positions. You get the impression Nucci takes the same schtick from production to production. The Zaccaria of Riccardo Zanellato is first-rate. He has the proper magisterial heft to his bass instrument to sound like a revered religious authority and the proper gravitas to bring the role off in excellent fashion. His fine bass singing often carries the others. Dimitra Theodossiou as Abigaille has plenty of steel in her big voice as the role requires, and plenty of screech in her high notes, which it doesn’t. She sings pretty well in moderate range and does provide a highlight or two, when Verdi isn’t driving her up above the stave. The tenor role of Ismaele and soprano role of Fenena are smaller parts, handled adequately here by Bruno Ribeiro and Anna Maria Chiuri, respectively, although both have a tendency to wander from the pitch. The Priest of Baal has a confirmed wobble but doesn’t sing much. Chorus and orchestral forces of the Teatro Regio are surprisingly good sounding, here performing under the baton of Michele Mariotti. The big hit tune for the chorus is sung very well, almost like they’d heard it before.

There are some 12 or so other video sets of Nabucco still obtainable at one Internet source or another, as I said, the competition ramps up. Of these, I have seen only the Metropolitan Opera set from 2000, which is spoiled for me by the poor singing of Samuel Ramey as Zaccaria. We are given more sets from the Met production (but still no hanging gardens), and the Met seems to have a better stock of biblical clothing. Juan Pons takes on the role of the king. Nabucco is somewhat of a stand-and-deliver opera, and Pons stands and delivers with the best, any noticeable acting skills missing. Maria Guleghina, like Theodossiou, is also a big-voiced soprano, but at least in 2000 she had a nice secure rein on her powerful top notes and out sings the Abigaille on this set. Guleghina, like Nucci, sings this opera often, she has appeared on several live recordings and on three of the videos. Of course with the Met you also get the fine chorus and orchestra, here under artistic director James Levine, but in this instance at least, they do not noticeably outperform the Parma forces on the C Major Video.

If you are looking for the ideal video representation of Nabucco, so am I, and this Parma production probably isn’t it. Both it and the Met recording have their flaws, but both still provide plenty of enjoyment and quite compelling versions of the opera. The Blu-ray format on C Major does not seem to provide the degree of video sharpness I have seen on some other Blu-ray products, but I’m certain it is vastly preferable to the quality of this video on DVD.

FANFARE: Bill White   

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 720504

  • UPC: 814337012052

  • Label: C Major

  • Composer: Giuseppe Verdi

  • Conductor: Michele Mariotti

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Parma Teatro Regio Chorus, Parma Teatro Regio Orchestra

  • Performer: Alessandro Spina, Anna Maria Chiuri, Bruno Ribeiro, Dimitra Theodossiou, Leo Nucci, Mauro Buffoli, Riccardo Zanellato