It Flew not, on Wings of Gold: La Scala’s Nabucco

ItalyItaly G. Verdi, Nabucco: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus Teatro alla Scala, Nicola Luisotti (conductor), Teatro alla Scala, Milan 7.2.2013 (JMI)

New production, co-produced with Covent Garden, Chicago Lyric Opera and Barcelona’s Liceu

Direction: Daniele Abbado
Sets and costumes: Allison Chitty
Lighting: Alessandro Carletti

Nabucco: Leo Nucci
Abigaille: Liudmyla Monastyrska
Zaccaria: Dmitry Beloselsky
Ismaele: Aleksandar Antonenko
Fenena: Nino Surguladze
High Priest: Ernesto Panariello
Abdallo: Giuseppe Veneziano
Anna: Silvia Dalla Benetta

Picture courtesy Teatro alla Scala, © Rudy Amisano
Picture courtesy Teatro alla Scala, © Rudy Amisano

Leaving La Scala on the evening of February 7, I contemplated what a big difference one night can make, in the performance level even of a top-notch opera house. The previous night (see S&H review) it was a delightful, excellent Falstaff, and from there seamlessly to a disappointing Nabucco. A vacuous stage production and routine musical direction were too much for a good cast to make up.

Modern productions, so the argument usually goes, are supposed to offer their idea of the plays, with probing thoughts and original dramaturgy added, so that the drama can be intelligible to today’s audiences. Times, after all, are very different from those when these operas were created—and so are audiences. That also means that a stage director rarely gets to produce two different productions of the same opera, unless many years have passed between the two.

This does not apparently apply to Daniele Abbado (yes, his son), whose last Nabucco dates from just five years ago; a production dominated by the permanent presence of a pseudo wailing wall. This new production doesn’t make it much clearer what profundity he means to convey, if any. Something similar happened with The Magic Flute where he oversaw two different productions in fairly close succession, and with very different concepts for both. Perhaps I am over-thinking this, and a director just puts on stage what it comes to his mind when he is commissioned by an opera house.

In any case, Daniele Abbado offers largely bare, minimalist stage, starting out in a Jewish cemetery in the process of being demolished. From there we move to a desert, there is sand on stage). The sets and costumes are confusing to me, bringing the action to what seems the time around the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine after World War II. What does Abbado intend to say? It’s hard to know, even after having read the interview published in the magnificent program book. Leaving confusion and lack of interest behind, there was still hope for a success just based on sheer aesthetics… alas, no.

Nicola Luisotti’s conducting disappointing me, too. I have always found him a passionate and energetic conductor. But in early Verdi—where we are still in belcanto territory—this energy can spell danger. His reading ended up noisy, hasty, and routine. Nabucco, not exactly Verdi’s finest (for all the fame it brought him), cannot succeed like this. The orchestra followed Mr. Luisotti’s baton and their performance was not at the same level as during Falstaff, the prior evening. The chorus is excellent and did really well, but they could not warm up the cold audience. I think it’s the first time I attend a Nabucco in Italy where “Va, pensiero” did not get an encore.

When I say that Leo Nucci is a vocal miracle (which I do every chance I get), I should be more precise. The miracle still exists, his Nabucco showed, but not in the same way it still did a couple of years ago. Nabucco was never one of his best rôles to begin with, and his projection, volume, and top notes were not at their best. He was not helped by the direction or conducting, either, but there was something quite eloquent about his aria “Dio di Giuda”, even as it received applause for just a brief 11 seconds.

Liudmyla Monastyrska was a last minute replacement as Abigaille for Lucrezia Garcia who had became ill after successfully singing the premiere performance. Monastyrska is a true dramatic soprano in the best tradition of Ghena Dimitriva and Maria Guleghina: she has a powerful voice and a brilliant and infallible top register. She not only has a spectacular instrument, but she also knows how to useit, sing softly, and with agility.

Ukrainian bass Dmitry Beloselsky was an acceptable Zaccaria, though his voice lacks power and authority while having a whitish upper register. Latvian tenor Aleksandar Antonenko was luxuriously cast as Ismaele, but little to do.

Jose Mª Irurzun