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VERDI Nabucco: (concert performance in English): soloists, chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / David Parry, Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 6.10.2005 (RJF)


Opera in four parts. Originally known as Nabucadonosor after the play from which Temistocle Solera derived the libretto. First performed at La Scala, Milan on March 9th 1842


Nabucco, King of Babylon, Alan Opie (bar);
, High Priest of the Hebrews, Tómas Tómason (bass); Abigaille, believed to be the eldest daughter of Nabucco but in reality a slave, Claire Rutter (sop);
Fenena, true daughter of Nabucco, Jane Irwin (mezzo);
, a Hebrew in love with Fenena, Leonardo Capalbo (ten); High Priest of Baal, John Cunningham (bass);
, an officer in the service of Nabucco, Paul Wade (ten); Anna, Zaccaria’s sister, Camilla Roberts (sop)



The premiere of Nabucco on March 9th 1842 marked a sea change in Italian opera. Verdi’s first two operas Oberto and a comic opera, Un Giorno Di Regno (a king for a day), had been relative failures. Burdened by the death of his wife and two children Verdi resolved to give up composition until Merelli, intendant at La Scala and librettist of two of Donizetti’s early operas tempted him with the libretto of Nabucco. A famous embellisher of stories in his later years, Verdi described how on return to his lodgings he threw the manuscript on a nearby table where it opened at the words of the famous chorus Va pensiero sull’ali dorate (Chorus of the Hebrew slaves). He read on and was inspired to take up his pen and compose.


Whilst Verdi’s first two operas could be seen a Donizettian in idiom, flavour and pace, Nabucco was something different. The forward thrust and vibrancy of the music were entirely different from anything that had gone before and were to be the hallmark of Verdi’s subsequent early period works. Rossini had used the chorus as a major protagonist in a number of his works, particularly the opera seria of his Naples period and in a manner that his successor, Donizetti, who was present at the Nabucco premiere did not. In Nabucco, and in subsequent early period operas, Verdi made full use of the chorus as a major protagonist in the work. Recognising the desirability of both a full orchestral sound and a vibrant full-bodied chorus, Opera North beefed up both for this series of concert performances that has toured Nottingham, Leeds, Huddersfield and concluding at the Lowry on October 10th.


Concert performances are the order of the day for Opera North since the spring of 2005 whilst their base at the lovely Matcham Grand Theatre in Leeds is refurbished, the stage facilities updated and a neighbouring property purchased and developed. This £31 million development, in two phases, should make an ideal home for a company’s that over the two plus decades of its independent existence has shown much imagination in repertoire and a high level of artistic achievement.


An opera company giving concert performances of a work like Nabucco should provide a red-letter day for the audience. Unencumbered by costume and producer quirks the soloists and chorus should present a thrilling evening to tell ones children about. In this day and age there is always the problem of casting suitable voices in Verdi, and in nearly every respect Opera North were successful.Where they were less so was in two important respects. The first was the in choosing to perform the opera in English although this might have been influenced by the decision to record the team for an issue in ChandosOpera In English Series supported by the Peter Moores Foundation. In general the prosody of the English language does not make an ideal marriage with Verdian cantilena, no matter how good the translation or diction of the soloists and chorus neither of which could be faulted here. And an avoidable decision was the placement of the 44 strong chorus on steeply raked tiers of rows that had the top row at least 18 feet above the soloists. The result was a flat vertical wall of choral sound rather than one of horizontal depth and which disturbed the normal aural impact. Verdi’s music is unique in Italian opera in that the melodic creation and thrust of the music with its variation of dramatic and lyrical episodes requires a conductor with a natural feel for the idiom. Whilst I have admired David Parry’s conducting in the bel-canto repertoire on many Opera Rara issues, I feel he conducts Verdi as it were verismo. Far too often, he let the brass and timpani off their leash to the detriment of the Verdian line as well as to the sound of his his soloists on occasions.


The soloists walked on and off the platform as they would in a fully staged performance. The first to be heard was Tómas Tómason as Zaccaria. He is the third bass used in the series of performances. Verdi wrote three great arias for the basso cantante voice in Nabucco. In the first, as Zaccaria appeals to the Hebrews to be of good cheer (Sperate, o figli), Tómasson started with some sonority in the lower range of his voice but as the aria progressed showed serious weaknesses in the upper voice that a Verdi bass needs, and where his tone thinned and an incipient vibrato became increasingly evident.

Jane Irwin as Fenena shared his rather bland physical animus. However, she sang with beauty of tone, steady legato and, in the final scene, greater involvement and expression. Involvement was very much in evidence in body language and vocal expression from the other principals; not least the Ishmaele of the young tenor Leonardo Capalbo who’s ardent singing and ringing tone heralds a bright future. Claire Rutter replaced the carded Sue Patterson as Abigaille. She has sung the Verdi lyrico spinto roles of Elvira (Ernani) and Amelia (Ballo in Maschera) with English National Opera. Abigaille, with its demands for flexibility in high tessitura and strong declamatory passages in the lower voice can be a killer. Miss Rutter’s colour and strength in her lower registers was a revelation and matched by her freedom and flexibility at the top of the voice. She managed the fiendish descent in Abigaillle’s aria and cabaletta at the start of part two with aplomb and without any obvious gear change into the chest register that mars Suliotis’ performance in the famous Decca recording with Tito Gobbi in the title role.

In the eponymous part, Alan Opie was everything that he has been for some time now, the finest British Verdi baritone since Peter Glossop. His vocal portrayal took in all the many facets of the character, from egocentric king through insanity to a particularly fine rendering of Son pur questa when Nabucco prays to the god of Israel and regains his sanity. The earlier confrontation with his supposed daughter Abigaille was the hair raising histrionic and vocal highlight of the evening. I would love to see a non-quirky staged performance with these two as principals with a natural Verdian such as Mark Elder or Ted Downes on the podium. On this evidence that would be a performance to tell ones children about! The minor parts were all well sung with Camilla Roberts as Anna singing strongly.


Whilst the evening missed the high standard I had hoped for, I suspect that the earlier performances with Alastair Miles as Zaccaria would have been stronger. If Claire Rutter is on the recording, enthusiasts of opera in English will have much to look forward to.

Robert J Farr



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