Last Friday night, the Metropolitan Opera performed Nabucco, the Verdi opera. The evening began with a perfect brass choir—perfectly proportioned, perfectly executed. The rest of the overture was pretty much perfect too. It was conducted with unquestionable authority—by James Levine.
A couple of years ago, I made a vow, which I’ve mentioned a time or two in print. The gist of it is, I don’t want my reviews of Levine to be medical reports. “Gee, he seemed fine on Monday night.” “Man, he was really ailing on Thursday.” I want to review Levine essentially as I always have—and as one reviews everyone else.
But it can be hard to avoid a medical report, or something that smacks of one.
Anyway, I can tell you this about Friday night: it might as well have been 1994 or something. Levine conducted like himself, with all the musical values in place. For example, he kept Nabucco moving without slighting it, at any turn. Let me quote the estimable critic Martin Bernheimer. Reviewing the December 12 performance of Nabucco, he wrote, “James Levine conducted with his customary concern for suavity underlying propulsion.”
“Suavity underlying propulsion.” That is exactly right.
On Friday night, Levine conducted “Va, pensiero”—Nabucco’s hit chorus—with zero affectation. The chorus was almost matter-of-fact, while sublime. Levine conducts, let’s say, the Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann the same way. It’s key, this prohibition on affectation.
Incidentally, “Va, pensiero” is often encored, including by Levine. It was not on this night.
“What shame has fallen upon me in my old age!” says Nabucco, a.k.a. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. No shame falls on Plácido Domingo, the Spanish tenor, now doing baritone roles. It was he who portrayed Nabucco last week. Domingo is a singer who apparently doesn’t know how old he is.
Sometimes, a baritone becomes a tenor—a great tenor. Caruso, Melchior, Bergonzi, and Domingo are the outstanding examples. We often say that they have a “baritonal trunk.” The upper branches are the tenor notes.
Well, these days, Domingo is singing in his trunk, if you will. (Born in a trunk, finishing in a trunk?)
As I watched and listened to Domingo and Levine, it occurred to me that they have enjoyed one of the great operatic collaborations. Each of them knows the other intimately. Communication must be effortless.
Once, years ago, Domingo did something impressive in a rehearsal. Levine quipped, “They don’t call you Plácido Domingo for nothin’.” True.
Regular readers know that I have a longstanding beef—many, but I’m thinking of one in particular: singers are cast in roles for which they don’t have enough voice. “Undersizing” in the opera world is an outright scandal. There was no such problem in the role of Abigaille on Friday night, as Liudmyla Monastyrska filled it.
She is a Ukrainian soprano with plenty of voice. At one point, she stood on a little extension, at the edge of the stage, not very far from me. I could feel the vibrations. Good vibrations. The voice had a physical effect on me and my neighbors.
Monastyrska can move this big voice around, too, having plenty of facility. And she was nearly as effective in her tender music as in her thunderous. She is the real McCoy, Liudmyla Monastyrska—a refreshing and needed operatic animal.
Dmitry Belosselskiy, a bass, has plenty of voice as well. He portrayed Zaccaria. Especially at the beginning of the night, he was tremulous and approximate. By “approximate,” I mean that he sometimes suggested pitches rather than singing them. But he ironed out his problems, and he no doubt owns an impressive instrument.
So does Russell Thomas, the American tenor who sang Ismaele. I first heard him in the 2005–6 season, when he sang a small role in Fidelio—a small but notable one. I am talking about the First Prisoner. I wrote that he sang with “a melting trumpet.” That instrument is very much intact.
Jamie Barton, the American mezzo, was Fenena, Princess of Babylon, singing her Verdi easily and well.
Members of the chorus have “Va, pensiero,” yes, but they have lots of other music in addition: this is a heavily choral opera. One of the most choral of all operas. And the Met’s chorus was a star of the show. They were stable and musical. Never has the chorus master, Donald Palumbo, been more deserving of his bows.
The orchestra does not bow at the Met, or in opera houses generally: they are pit-dwellers. But there were at least two players on Friday night who perhaps deserved bows of their own. I’m thinking of Rafael Figueroa, cello, and Erik Gratton, flute. The former contributed a superbly judged solo—insinuating, somewhat startling. The latter contributed fluteful purity.
It was a Verdian night, with Verdian singing, Verdian conducting, and an overall Verdian spirit. I like the production, too: Elijah Moshinsky’s from 2001. In my view, it looks like Nabucco should. This opera is a big, splashy Biblical drama, and the production follows suit.
I had not looked forward to seeing this opera. I remembered it as one nice chorus and Abigaille yelling, all night. That was stupid: it’s a fantastic opera, as the Met confirmed.
Let me end on a joke, or jokey observation. In the story, Princess Fenena converts to Judaism, surrounded by Hebrew slaves. (She is also in love with Ismaele, who is Jewish royalty. All the girls like him. Whatever it takes to hook the ladies, he has. He even hooks the enemy chicks.) Learning of his daughter’s conversion, Nabucco is of course horrified and outraged. “Giù!” he says. “Prostrati!” In other words, “Down! Prostrate yourself before me!”
Now, “Giù! Prostrati!” sounds like “Jew! Prostrati!”—which is fitting, to an English-speaking audience.
Anyway . . .