I have sympathy for the people in charge of the casting department at the Metropolitan Opera. They have to deal with many singers from a number of countries whose schedules have to dovetail with that of the MET. Contracts have to be negotiated two or three or four years in advance, especially these days in which opera companies vie for the services of a limited number of singers available to do a specific role. The singers must be hired to perform their assignment – one already mastered and made part of their repertory – at a specific period of time in the midst of busy careers. They must be hired for a fee affordable to the opera company and acceptable to the singer’s personal management. Indeed, this is a tough job for those doing the hiring.
Having started to go to the opera at age fourteen and now, half a century later continuing to support my habit, I have to confess that after attending many operatic performances today I come away disenchanted with the state of affairs in the world of high C’s and higher fees. Today’s HD presentation of Verdi’s Nabucco was a case in point.
Of the names in the cast, three were immediately recognizable to me: Jamie Barton, a fast-rising young mezzo-soprano with an imposing voice, Russell Thomas, a fine lyric-spinto tenor on the brink of a major career, and Placido Domingo. Ms. Barton’s engagements are beginning to include some of the “big girl” Verdian and Wagnerian roles. She sang with conviction the role of Fenena, the younger daughter of the Babylonian king, Nabucco. Mr. Thomas sang eloquently, turning an ungrateful supporting role into an important one.
Placido Domingo sang the title role. No news to anybody who keeps up with opera news in Opera News, Mr. Domingo is 75 years old. During the best part of a distinguished fifty year career, the Spanish tenor has sung just about every major role in the Italian, French, German and Russian repertoires. Starting a few years ago, Mr. Domingo decided to stop singing the tenor repertoire and slowly started to add major Verdi baritone roles to his resume. He has had mixed results with this.
Verdi wrote for some of the great singers of his time. Baritone Giorgio Ronconi was his first and formidable Nabucco. The composer’s future wife, Giuseppina Strepponi was by-all-accounts an amazing Abigaille. The star French basso Prosper Dérivis was Zaccaria. Two centuries later at the MET and throughout America we have seen and heard some great Nabucco casts.
Quite a few names come to mind: Leo Nucci, Renato Bruson, Sheryl Milnes, Tito Gobbi – all exceptional singers of the title role. Baritones ready to take on the role of Nabucco are not many. The part of the Babylonian despot calls for a good deal of angry utterances – the King is not happy most of the time, and when unhappy he/Verdi express this by a good deal of parlando snarling smack in the middle of the baritone voice: that tricky region between the D to d octave where most of the role’s music lies.
Then there is much legato singing required of the baritone, notably in the aria, Dio di Giuda, in Act III. For a Verdi baritone this is not one of the highest lying parts, certainly nothing comparable to Rigoletto, Germont, Boccanegra with their high tessitura. Instead, this is dramatic baritone territory calling for lots of cutting power in the baritone’s middle voice. A tenor without the baritone’s dark coloring needed to score points in the part’s “money notes” is no substitute for the real deal.
A few singers come to mind, some of which may be artists who have neither prepared nor wanted to undertake the role of the Babylonian king. But, in my opinion, Željko Lučić , George Gadnize, and Mark Delavan, are true-blue Verdi baritones quite capable of summoning the high reserves of sound needed for the ensembles and “big moments” that abound in Nabucco.
Today’s MET Abigaille, the Russian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska is a singer with a typically Slavic vocal production totally unsuited to that assignment. In reality a Bel Canto soprano or high mezzo is needed who can traverse a two-octave-plus range, command extraordinary vocal agility, and possess a chameleonic talent to change vocal colorings. Ms. Monastyrska, unfortunately has not conquered the demands of the role.
Boris Christoff, Giorgio Tozzi, Cesare Siepi, Samuel Ramey were some of the great bass singers of the role of Zaccaria that many of us were lucky to hear in person. Morris Robinson, a gigantic man and an equally large-scale artist with a world class basso voice has already sung the role of Zaccaria in Nabucco. Unlike the voice of Dmitri Belosselskiy, the Zaccaria in today’s broadcast, Robinson’s vocal equipment spans with comfort the role’s two octaves replete with high F’s and F#’s and phrases that climax at the bottom of the bass voice. Robinson, by the way, is already singing major roles at the MET. He would be my Zaccaria in a perfect Nabucco cast.
The MET chorus walked away with the performance, singing so beautifully and acting so convincingly that the Va, pensiero lament of the Hebrews had to be encored. Lucky them, lucky MET, lucky us. James Levine, frail but nonetheless in full command of the Verdi style infused the playing with sweep and grandeur.
The Elijah Moshinsky production does the singers no favors, often leaving them to their own devices perilously careening up and down the steps of an ungainly multi-tiered set, or lined up in a semi-circle singing in oratorio fashion wearing costumes that range from confusing to overwrought.
Casting a major opera season that contains dozens of roles big and small in a couple of dozen operas is no easy matter. But I would hope the MET could do better than it did in today’s Nabucco. The management of our largest opera company could begin by looking closer to home when panning for vocal gold.
Rafael de Acha