Magic in the Making: the Muti, Serjan, Meli Nabucco

ItalyItaly Verdi, Nabucodonosor. Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera, Rome. Chorus Master, Roberto Gabbiani. Conductor, Riccardo Muti. Staging and Sets, Jean-Paul Scarpitta. Costumes, Maurizio Millenotti. Lighting, Anne-Claire Simar. Teatro dell’Opera 18.07.2013 (JB)

Nabucodonosor, King of Babylon -Luca Salsi
Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem -Francesco Meli
Zaccaria, High Priest of the Hebrews –Riccardo Zanallato
Abigaille, a slave, presumed daughter of Nabucodonosor -Tatiana Serjan
Fenena, daughter of Nabucodonosor – Sonia Ganassi


What would you do if you were acknowledged as the world’s leading conductor of Verdi and you were to meet a dramatic soprano who had unrivalled vocal expression with all the necessary dramatic nuances plus stage presence for the Verdi powerful soprano roles? And what if your hypothetical soprano doesn’t just have the most convincing feeling for this music, but continues to surprise herself and her audiences with the excitement she finds within herself in delivering these roles? Magic in the making, so to speak. Well the hypothesis has become reality. This is what Riccardo Muti is doing with Tatiana Serjan. They have worked together on various roles. Lady Macbeth was unforgettable. And tonight she made her world debut as Abigaille.

There is a downside to Serjan’s singing. She has no Italian diction. She could be singing in Japanese. But opera is an international language. And Ms Serjan’s delivery is so thrilling -and indeed, when it needs to be- chilling– too, that lack of diction comes out as a minor blemish! There is no Birgit Nilsson, nor Gwyneth Jones nor Ghena Dimitrova on today’s scene. So Tatiana Serjan reigns alone in these roles.

As with Shakespeare, so with Verdi: his villains are much more engaging than his heroines. No one remembers Macbeth: it’s his missus that dominates play and opera. But who remembers Desdemona? Iago is imprinted on everyone’s mind in opera and play. Of course, the villains are required to pull out all the stops. Serjan is a master of that.

Teatro dell’Opera’s Artistic Director, Alessio Vlad, is proud of the fact that he has engaged an entire cast making debuts in their respective Nabucco roles. And this is justified pride.

Amazingly, he has found a heroic tenor to stand alongside Tatiana Serjan. Francesco Meli goes from strength (and that is the operative word) to greatness. I already reported on his perfect delivery in the recent Un Ballo in Maschera. But his Ismaele is even more sure-footed, as though he has relaxed into his thrilling delivery.

Bette Davis dominated every role she undertook. Her screen persona fairly well obliterated all the other actors in the movie. In Whatever Happened to Baby Jane Joan Crawford gave her a good run for her money but in the final reckoning it remains Davis’s film. Serjan does the same with Meli. This becomes Abigaile’s opera. But let’s just say that Meli is an admirable Crawford to Serjan’s Davis. In his brief duet with her, Meli displayed power in the service of remarkable musicianship. He occupies a unique position on today’s operatic scene.

That said, you have to take a deep drop in quality to consider the other singers of this production. Sonia Ganassi sounded puny and pipsqueak next to Meli, in what should have been their moving Act One duet. There is a tendency these days to cast Fenena with a mezzosoprano. And so Vlad / Muti had done here. That to me is asking for trouble. I believe Verdi knew what he was doing in calling for a soprano. And ideally, one with the vocal power of Abigaille. As it was, Mr Meli obliterated Miss Ganassi.

Saddest of all was Luca Salsi as Nabucco. He sounded insecure. Insecure! With all the certainties of Ismaele and Abigaille, he was cancelled out. Who wouldn’t have been? His voice is fine enough and with another and inferior cast he would probably have worked well. I recognise that it is grossly unfair to judge voices by Serjan, Meli deliveries. But this is where the strengths of those two don’t really give space for other singers. Their strengths shine torchlight on others’ shortcomings.

Maestro Muti takes much of this opera daringly slow. That underlines much of the expression, but with all but the Great Two, it creates problems which turn out to sound insuperable. Nabucco was in real trouble in his long scene with Abigaille in the third act. She wasn’t of course. One has the impression she could sing the Götterdammerung immolatian scene without taking a breath! Fenena got to the ends of her phrases on a wing and a prayer.

Roberto Gabbiani did a fine job with the chorus though here too the slow tempi proved a challenge which was not always well met. Va Pensiero was encored, as it almost always is. Even the most unpatriotic Italians become nationalistic at the sound of its first strains.

Muti presents the opera with Verdi and Solera’s original title- Nabucodonosor– though I still haven’t understood why. Though when they go to Salzburg, the Festival have insisted on Nabucco. Thus the audience will understand what they are going to see.

Salzburg will stage three concert performances of this Nabucco at the end of August this year. The Salzburg Festival are right to ask Rome to leave sets and costumes behind when they perform at the Grosses Festpielhaus. That part of the production with sets and Stage Direction by Jean-Paul Scarpitta is noble and uplifting, though it does advertise rather loudly that Italian houses are working under a rule of austerity. And I am sure that in Austrian eyes, grand opera should have no truck with cut-backs.

Jack Buckley