Verdi’s Nabucco is one of the most choral of operas. The chorus is virtually the lead “singer” of the show. As James Levine built a sterling orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera, Donald Palumbo has built a sterling chorus—or he has at least burnished it, let’s say. Earlier this month, the Met announced that Mr. Palumbo would step down at the end of the current season (just started).
His chorus was splendid in Nabucco last night—in “Va, pensiero,” the hit of the show, but throughout the opera as well. “Va, pensiero” seemed to ride on air. It seemed to float—beautifully breathed and in tune. Let me stress that last part: in tune. This makes more of a difference than most people know, I think, and it is not to be taken for granted.
Now and then, “Va, pensiero” is encored. It was not last night. But the one go was very satisfying—the high point of the night, I would say. “Va, pensiero” seemed to me a Verdian Ave verum corpus (the Mozart motet): prayerful, simple, transcendent.
Unless I missed him, Donald Palumbo was not on hand to take a bow. But he was there in spirit, so to speak.
Portraying Nabucco was George Gagnidze, the Georgian baritone. My first memory of him dates to the 2007–08 season: he was Scarpia in a concert performance of Tosca (Puccini) by the New York Philharmonic. Gagnidze was smoky, virile, and explosive. He has been exploding in various Italian roles ever since. As Nabucco (a.k.a. Nebuchadnezzar), he was kingly and convincing.
Abigaille was sung by Liudmyla Monastyrska, the Ukrainian soprano. She sang this role at the Met in 2016–17. (For my review, go here.) I am tempted to say that Abigaille is not so much sung as survived: it is a beast of a role. It demands tremendous ruggedness and power. Rarely is Abigaille pretty of voice. Yet the role has tender and lyrical pages, to go with the thunder and lightning.
Ms. Monastyrska was both beast and angel. I could pick at her, for intonation, etc., but Abigailles do not grow on trees, and this one carried out the role with laudable ability.
Zaccaria was sung by another Ukrainian, and another member of the 2016–17 cast: the bass Dmitry Belosselskiy. He was relaxed and commanding. On the stage, he seemed as comfortable as a person might be in his living room. He was at times tremulous, and low notes were faint—but Belosselskiy was a pro, giving what he had, which was plenty.
A Russian mezzo-soprano, Maria Barakova, was Fenena. She was youthful, poised, and lyrical—and loud. That is an enviable combination. Ismaele was SeokJong Baek, a tenor from South Korea. He was occasionally effortful, but he was always earnest, and he made some beautiful sounds.
Presiding in the pit was Maestro Daniele Callegari. He is an excellent conductor. In the Met’s 2012–13 season, he conducted a boffo Trovatore. (Il trovatore is another Verdi opera.) Last night, in Nabucco, he was never less than competent. Never. But the opera could have used more tautness, more propulsion, more electricity—more.
Emerging from the pit was a startling, sinuous, and beautiful “singer”: the principal cello, Jerry Grossman. The principal flute, Chelsea Knox, made the most of her solo work. Her trilling, for example, was a model.
Nabucco is a grand opera, calling out for a grand opera house—a house of grand opera and an opera house that is grand. The Met is certainly that. Its production of Nabucco is that of Elijah Moshinsky, from 2001. I always thought that “Elijah Moshinsky” was a particularly good name for the director of a Biblical epic.
Last night was a good night, certainly a respectable night—a professional night. But Nabucco can pack a greater punch.