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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Nabucco drama lirico in four parts (1842)
Nabucco, King of Babylon - Alan Opie (bar); Zacharia, High Priest of the Hebrews - Alastair Miles (bass); Abigaille, slave, believed to be the eldest daughter of Nabucco - Susan Patterson (sop); Fenena, daughter of Nabucco - Jane Irwin (mezzo); Ismael, Hebrew in love with Fenena - Leonardo Capalbo (ten); High Priest of Baal - Dean Robinson (bass); Abdullah, an officer in the service of Nabucco - Paul Wade (ten); Anna Zacharia’s sister - Camilla Roberts (sop)
Opera North Orchestra and Chorus/David Parry
rec. Leeds Town Hall, 19-22 September 2005, 13, 14, 16 July 2006. DDD
CHANDOS OPERA IN ENGLISH CHAN 3136 [73.54 + 52.02]

This Chandos recording derives from the series of concert performances given by Opera North whilst they were ‘homeless’ pending the major refurbishment of their Leeds base at the Grand Theatre. The soloists recorded here were the lead cast at the first of those concert performances. I caught up with them on behalf of Seen and Heard at Salford’s Lowry Theatre on 6 October 2005 when there were cast-changes including the replacement of Alastair Miles as Zacharia review. What was not initially scheduled was the withdrawal of Susan Patterson as Abigaille, a well-known killer role. In the performance I saw Claire Rutter substituted and she was quite outstanding. I would have been very happy if she had been included in the role in this recording. Like Susan Patterson she is essentially a lyric soprano with heft. The fact that both women coped with the fiendish vocal demands of the role is highly commendable and as far as Susan Patterson is concerned her performance here is a significant improvement on her Amelia in the Chandos A Masked Ball in this same series (Chandos CHAN 3116). Yes, Susan Patterson does approach the demands of the role with obvious vocal care and certainly not with the viscerally exciting vocal abandon exhibited by Elena Suliotis on the Decca recording conducted by Gardelli (417 407-2). Her ascent to the climactic note in the aria and cabaletta at the start of Part 2, as Abigaille recounts her birth, is not as smooth as it might be, but she achieves the following fearsome double-octave drop with aplomb and without the obvious gear-change into her smooth chest register which mars the Suliotis interpretation. She also finishes on a clean high note (Trs.16-19).

Whilst Verdi’s first two operas could be seen as Donizettian in idiom, flavour and pace, Nabucco - originally known as Nabucodonosor - 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, Verdi makes full use of the chorus as a major protagonist. Recognising the desirability of both a full orchestral sound and a vibrant full-bodied chorus, Opera North beefed up both for the series of concert performances and it sounds as if the policy was pursued in this recording. The chorus of Opera North are a very committed and involved bunch in staged performances and they bring those qualities to this recording. Both in the opening chorus, normally known as Gli arredi festivi (CD1 tr.2) and the famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves (CD2 tr.20) they sing with verve, vitality and sincerity. David Parry’s conducting is fine in those choruses and the more lyric portions of the work, but he does tend to treat Verdi a little too much as a verismo composer and misses the rhythmic Verdian idiom in the dramatic scores. Far too often he lets the brass and timpani off their leash to the detriment of the Verdian line as well as, on occasions, his soloists. Solo prayers by Zacharia follow both of those choral items as the High Priest seeks to rally his charges, the children of Israel (CD 1 tr 2 and CD 2 tr 21). If Alastair Miles’ lean bass lacks the gravitas and depth of sonority of the perfect Verdian basso cantante, he does sing with musicality, fine legato and good characterisation, all virtues not always readily to the fore.

In the eponymous role, Alan Opie is what he has been for some time, the finest British dramatic Verdi baritone since Peter Glossop, Michaels-Moore notwithstanding. His vocal portrayal takes in all the many facets of Nabucco’s 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 and which is particularly well expressed (CD 2 tr. 11). The earlier confrontation with his supposed daughter Abigaille was the hair raising histrionic and vocal highlight of the concert performance. It wants that impact here partly because of the balancing of the recording with the solo singers set too far back on the sound-stage. The young tenor Leonardo Capalbo, an Opera North ‘discovery’, portrays the role of Ismael with ardent singing and ringing tone. Jane Irwin as Fenena sings with beauty of tone, steady legato and involvement. Her rendering of Fenena’s prayer is particularly expressive.

The booklet contains an informative introductory essay by Verdi scholar Roger Parker, singer biographies and track-related synopsis in English, German, French and Italian. There is a full libretto in English. A picture and statement by Sir Peter Moores, whose Foundation makes possible these recordings of opera in English issued by Chandos, introduces the translation used and which is that prepared by Tom Hammond and Norman Tucker for the Welsh National Opera’s 1952 production. As a generality I have always contended that 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. I will backtrack on that contention so far as this recording is concerned. The translation fits the music well without disturbing the flow, line or sentiment of the words.

It has been a long time since a new studio recording of Verdi’s first great success came from any record company. I suspect it will be even longer before there is another. Although it does not displace Decca’s earlier recording, particularly for Lamberto Gardelli’s instinctive idiomatic conducting and the better balance of the soloists, this performance has many virtues. Those who like to hear their opera in English need wait no longer.

Robert J Farr


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