Indefatigable Plácido Domingo Takes On Role of Nabucco

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Verdi, Nabucco: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Nicola Luisotti (conductor). ROH Cinema 2012/13 Broadcast to the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, London, 29.4.2013. (JPr)

Production: New production, co-produced with La Scala, Milan, Chicago Lyric Opera and Barcelona’s Liceu
Direction: Daniele Abbado
Sets and costumes: Alison Chitty
Lighting: Alessandro Carletti
Directed for live cinema by Rhodri Huw

Nabucco: Plácido Domingo
Abigaille: Liudmyla Monastyrska
Fenena: Marianna Pizzolato
Zaccaria: Vitalij Kowaljow
Ismaele: Andrea Carè
High Priest of Baal: Robert Lloyd
Abdallo: David Butt Philip
Anna: Dušica Bijelić

‘If I rest I rust’ is emblazoned on Plácido Domingo’s website that reveals a full calendar of singing and conducting engagements that would challenge a man half his seventy plus years. To be honest he looks much older than 72 but is this any wonder considering his lifestyle. He just doesn’t know when to quit it seems – he can still sing of course, but it is more a question of why he feels the need to after all these years and all the roles he has performed. He has been choosing what he sings very carefully of late and is working his way through some familiar roles (Simon Boccanegra, La traviata), and others less so in the Verdi baritone repertoire (I duo Foscari, Giovanna d’Arco). He still seems keen to add to the reported 142 different roles he has undertaken. So the elderly despot Nabucco (the biblical Nebuchadnezzar who was driven insane by God for attempting to destroy the Jews) which that he has been singing for the first time at Covent Garden, should fit like a glove at this stage of his career.

I have often thought of many baritones as ‘lazy tenors’ who are unwilling to take their voices higher than they feel they can go. Domingo was never ‘King of the High Cs’ even in his prime and by managing his career magnificently, has made the very best of a limited upper range by focussing on his burnished timbre,  secure tone, fluid phrasing, charisma and physical presence. I have watched him for well over thirty years and clearly the time is rapidly approaching (if not here already) for him to leave the opera stage – as a performer – to those of a younger generation. His voice is still amazing for someone of his age but if anyone watches a film of him singing Otello it is clear that it is the same tenor voice with even fewer top notes. If he is a baritone now – he must have been then!

Though it was rather appropriate here for the demented Nabucco, a stooping Domingo’s movement is now arthritic, he looks totally exhausted and worst of all was heavily reliant on a prompter. (A prompt box is common in all other operas houses except in Britain – by feeding singers their words they can sing a role they do not know, as long as they have some idea of the music.) To his credit this was not glossed over as this was seen happening in the backstage rehearsal excerpts and a few anxious glances for help during the performance were also left in the final recording. He had none of his former authority when he first came on stage and though his character’s decline was pitiable in a Lear-like way, it was very hard to separate my thoughts about the singer and what he was singing. Domingo returns to Nabucco at Verona this summer and will possibly be more at ease with this new part then.

Verdi suffused Nabucco with some memorable choruses for both the Hebrews (the heroes) and Babylonians (the villains), and unfortunately Daniele Abbado (yes his son) does little in his modern dress staging (sets and costumes by Alison Chitty) to tell us who is who on stage, apart from the yarmulkes that was a giveaway for the Jews. Mostly they were dressed in 1940s drably grey outfits fitting the Holocaust and Diaspora themes in Abbado’s staging. Some of the Babylonians could have been in Nazi uniforms but perhaps that might have been too much for some. The significant imagery is of stone grey slabs that looked very similar to the Berlin Holocaust Memorial (many commentators seem to have missed this), some flames, dead children and removed shoes (none of these need explaining!), sand (for the search for a homeland in Palestine) and a large ‘Wicker Man’ figure for the pagan god, Baal. (The wicker statue is known as La vecchia in Northern Italy and is burnt once a year in town festivals.) There is also some videography that seemed to mirror what we saw on stage but it did not come over very clearly during this cinema relay.

The transmission was again described as (for some reason) ‘delayed live’ which actually translates as ‘recorded on 26th April’ … and possibly another evening too. It was reasonably well directed for the screen by Rhodri Huw, as Daniele Abbado’s semi-staging allowed his cameras to linger on the soloists and chorus who were, anyway, mostly just standing still whilst singing. Perhaps his cameras were a little too tight on Domingo and his Abigaille, Liudmyla Monastyrska, at times because some of their singing was very effortful … and this was shown in pained close-ups.

I have only seen this early Verdi opera a couple of times before and cannot believe it is dramatically any more convincing if performed in elaborate sets. All it appears to need to succeed are a great chorus, a conductor with some authentic Italian fervour and a soprano with secure technique and big lungs for Abigaille. Since here it was the Royal Opera Chorus, Nicola Luisotti with the baton and the stentorian Liudmyla Monastyrska, the evening was musically strong, even if not equally so visually. Ms Monastyrska was lauded in Antonio Pappano’s otherwise eloquent introduction to Nabucco almost as if she was the ‘second coming’ of Maria Callas. That she certainly is not! This Ukrainian is a reliable, loud, spinto soprano with a voice that has a great range of dynamics and colour but also the capability to sing a line softly when required. Luisotti’s conducting is full of insight, verve and theatricality; the orchestra seem to like him and he was shown in backstage scenes usurping Renato Balsadonna’s job as director of the chorus and coaching them in what was an unstated – and as a result more affecting – rendition of the unofficial Italian national anthem – ‘Va, pensiero’, better known as the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’. Nicola Luisotti would seem to have enough to do as music director in San Francisco and of Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo, even though he seems another who might be positioning themselves to put themselves forward to take over from Pappano at Covent Garden when the job finally becomes vacant.

The rest of the cast were good but not so good that it didn’t stop me wondering why the only British singers in the supporting roles were Robert Lloyd’s authoritative High Priest of Baal, and David Butt Philip as a Babylonian soldier, none are nearly as challenging as that of Nabucco and Abigaille. There were two Italians in the cast, Marianna Pizzolato was somewhat bland as Fenena and Andrea Carè tried too hard as Ismaele, often resembling a Domingo ‘tribute act’ at times. I particularly liked Vitalij Kowaljow’s Zaccaria who was less commanding and somewhat more reflective than I suppose he sometimes might be portrayed – and this was very appropriate as here he appeared in the guise of a Rabbi rather than ‘High Priest’.

I always must add is that I am commenting on what I heard in a cinema auditorium and not as it would be ‘live’ in the theatre, regardless how good the digital sound reproduction is. Unfortunately at the Empire, Leicester Square, it was not good for the first half of the transmission. Stoic Brits as most of the audience were, nobody said anything until the interval (I was stuck in the middle of a row) when something was done and things were much better for the remainder of the opera. Since this involved Nabucco’s great confrontation with Abigaille, his ravings and redemption and ‘Va, pensiero’ the best was yet to come. Unfortunately it was clear that as the lights dimmed more than a third of the earlier audience had not stayed to see how it all ended.

Jim Pritchard

Check out your local cinema listings as the 2012-13 Royal Opera House Cinema season continues or visit their web site.

Here is an  earlier review by Colin Clarke with Leo Nucci as Nabucco.