“Con quest’opera si può dire veramente che
ebbe principio la mia carriera artistica.” (“It can
truly be said that my artistic career began with this opera”).
Verdi may perhaps be forgiven for taking artistic licence with
this observation to Ricordi, his publisher. His previous works
were the patchy and immature “Oberto” and the comic
flop “Un giorno do regno”. “Nabucco” marks
a huge advance over these. Verdi here begins to find his true
voice, mining the rich seam of cantilena melody which characterises
his best early work and adding to it both psychological profundity
and economy of expression.
Re-visiting this recording and comparing it with those by Sinopoli
and Gardelli, I was struck by the tautness and impact of the libretto
and plot. All three recordings have their flaws but all three
are to a large degree successful and I found that I had been wrong
to relegate this one to third place. Verdi was as incapable as
Shakespeare of creating cardboard characters and it is remarkable
how both the villains of the piece, Abegaille and Nabucco himself,
emerge as complex, tormented souls, far more absorbing than the
supposed heroes. They are the forerunners of that long line of
father-daughter pairs; Solera’s libretto stimulated Verdi’s
imagination and his emotions at a time when he was trying to emerge
from two years of grief and suffering, marked by personal loss
and (comparative) artistic failure.
The popularity of “Va, pensiero”, the emphasis upon
spectacle, the four marches, unison choruses and brassy scoring
all combine to support the reputation of “Nabucco”
as the chauvinistic rallying-call of popular legend. However,
in the admixture of private passion and political chicanery, certain
situations and even specific musical ideas are clearly proleptic
of later, greater works such as “Simon Boccanegra”,
although the masterpiece it most resembles in mood, atmosphere
and in its melding of extremes is perhaps “Aida”.
Certainly his contemporaries thought well enough of it to choose
its music to accompany Verdi’s funeral cortège.
Muti’s conducting of this 1977 recording has been condemned
as crude and aggressive. He is hectic at times, to be sure, but
that is hardly out of keeping with the swift pace of events and
he still gives his singers space in the more contemplative passages.
By comparison, the more experienced Gardelli lets the action unfold
in more relaxed style and has a more persuasive overview of the
score. Sinopoli is simply erratic, with too much of a stop-go
approach, dissecting every bar and letting tensions droop before
trying to whip up passion out of nowhere. Nonetheless, I prefer
Sinopoli’s brisker, shapelier account of “Va, pensiero”
to Muti’s uncharacteristically lugubrious version; Gardelli’s
lies in between, as you might expect.
The eponymous starring role is in all three cases taken by a first
class baritone. Manuguerra has the smoothest, most sheerly beautiful
voice, with more sap in its upper reaches than the aging Gobbi
and more bite than Cappuccilli’s woolly tone, but all three
bring admirable virtues to the part: Gobbi is the most moving
and characterful, Cappuccilli displays his celebrated long-breathed
line in “Deh, perdona”, while the underrated Manuguerra
combines some of the best features of both the others in a detailed,
compellingly vocalised account.
As Abegaille, all three spinto sopranos - as Scotto had become
by this stage of her career - provide the listener with thrills
and vocal virtuosity. Dimitrova has a rather thin, wiry tone and
the steam-whistle top notes, so typical of a certain type of Slavic
soprano, tend to flutter, but she has the range and measure of
this fiendish part. I sometimes think its worth owning Sinopoli’s
recording just to hear her wonderful pianissimo top C alone. She
has no especial psychological insights and her registers are disconnected,
but it’s still a worthy assumption. Suliotis excels in a
rôle tailor-made for a fearless, uninhibited twenty-two-year-old
of formidable gifts and talent. She, too, suffers from poor integration
of the two registers but capitalises on the contrast between her
floated top and trenchant low notes. She is the artist who most
recalls the formidable performance of Callas in her 1958 recital
conducted by Rescigno. Scotto, too, shares features of Callas’s
delivery, including a biting articulation of text and the less
recommendable lapses into flapping top notes when pressed at forte.
When not pressing too hard, Scotto can still float the top and
hers is a formidable firebrand of an Abegaille - she is the best
actress of all. Given the intensity and conviction of Scotto’s
performance, I find that I am now much more forgiving of those
squally high notes and inclined to prefer her to Dimitrova, who
is technically superior but more generic in characterisation.
All three basses are fine artists: Nesterenko for Sinopoli has
a mighty voice but lacks the warmth and authority of Ghiaurov
- who is rusty and occasionally bleak of tone at this stage in
his career but still impressive - or Carlo Cava, who has less
voice than either but has thought more deeply about the inflection
of words and nuances of character. All three make a beautiful
job of their aria “Tu sul labbro”, with its beguiling
six-part cello accompaniment. Robert Lloyd is a notable High Priest
for Muti; I wonder if I am the first to notice that he must have
been absent for whatever reason (not worth paying him to sing
so little?) during the second, 1978, recording session and thus
we hear the unmistakable voice of Ghiaurov, deputising for Lloyd
in the High Priest’s one line in the finale.
In sheer vocal terms, Muti scores over Gardelli with Elena Obraztsova’s
Fenena. Decca made the mistake of simply under-casting Fenena
with the inadequate Dora Carral, but the problem with Obraztsova
is that she has far too much voice for so passive a character.
Her stentorian tones are not a good fit for the delicate Fenena,
although she vocalises better than either Carral or the late Valentini-Terrani,
making a particularly fine job of her prayer in the last act.
One of the great pleasures of the Muti set is to hear Veriano
Luchetti in the brief and rather ungrateful role of Ismaele. His
smooth, ringing, Italianate tenor is far preferable to the clumsy
Prevedi for Gardelli and superior even to Domingo, slumming it
in a bit part for Sinopoli. Luchetti is particularly admirable
in the lovely trio “Io t’amava”.
The Ambrosian Chorus sounds a little lean in comparison with the
Vienna State Opera Chorus or the Berliners but as ever they sing
with verve and precision. The Philharmonia respond with alacrity
to Muti’s taut direction and the sound is excellent.
I remain irritated by EMI’s inconvenient policy of putting
the libretto on a third CD-ROM; I do not want to go to the trouble
or expense of printing off my own and thus simply take a libretto
from another set on my shelves - but not everyone has multiple
editions of the less popular Verdi operas. One minor point: in
this re-packaging (not a re-mastering, I think; this dates from
1986 but remains satisfactory), in the cast-list someone has managed
to transpose the surnames of that estimable tenor Keith Collins
and soprano Anne Edwards.