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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Nabucco. Opera in four parts (1842)
Nabucco, King of Babylon - George Gagnidze  (baritone); Zaccaria, High Priest of the Hebrews - Rafał Siwek  (bass); Abigaille, slave, believed to be the eldest daughter of Nabucco - Susanna Branchini  (soprano); Fenena, true daughter of Nabucco and loved by Ismaele - Nino Surguladze (soprano); Ismaele, Hebrew in love with Fenena - Rubens Pelizzari  (tenor); High Priest of Baal - Nicolò Ceriani (bass); Abdalla, an officer in the service of Nabucco - Paolo Antognetti  (tenor); Anna, Zaccaria’s sister - Elena Borin  (soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Arena Verona/ Daniel Oren
Director and Costumes designer, Arnaud Bernard
rec. August 2017, Arena Verona
Audio, PCM Stereo and HD Master Audio 5.1. Video, 1 BD50 1081i full HD. Colour 16:9
Booklet notes and synopsis in English, Italian, French and German.
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Korean and Japanese
BELAIR CLASSICS Blu-ray BAC448 [137 mins]

Nabucco was Verdi’s third opera. Like the first two, Oberto (1839) and Un giorno di regno (1840) it was premièred at La Scala, Milan. The latter opera, Verdi’s only comic opera until his last, Falstaff (1893) was initially considered a failure. During the composition of Un giorno di regno life for Verdi was difficult. Money was short and his wife pawned jewels to pay for their lodgings. Always prone to psychosomatic symptoms, the composer suffered from a bad throat and angina during the composition. Then, in June 1840, on the feast of Corpus Christi, his beloved wife died of encephalitis and thus followed their children.

With his personal and professional life in tatters, Verdi returned to his home in Busseto determined never to compose again. However, Merelli, intendant at La Scala pressed on him the libretto of Nabucodonosor. Verdi read the libretto and was greatly stimulated by it albeit that, to his chagrin, its completion was too late for inclusion in the La Scala season whose sequence had already been completed and published. It took some vehement correspondence from the composer before the opera was premièred on March 9th 1842, in second hand sets but with a first-rate baritone and bass. Giuseppina Strepponi, who was to be a great influence in Verdi’s life, sang Abigaille. The work was a resounding success and although the season had only ten days to run Nabucco was given no less than eight more times. The delighted Merelli promptly scheduled a revival for the following autumn when there were another sixty-seven performances, breaking all La Scala records. The chorus Va pensiero was regularly encored with the Milanese public, like much of Northern Italy under Austrian occupation, clearly identifying themselves with the oppressed Hebrews of the story. It was a tenuous start to the identification of Verdi and his operas with the movement, later in the 1840s, for the liberation and unification of Italy called the Risorgimento

Whilst Verdi’s first two operas could be seen as 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 première, did not. In Nabucco, Verdi makes full use of the chorus as a major protagonist. It is always a pleasure to hear an Italian Chorus sing these pieces and the performance of the Verona forces in this performance confirms that, particularly with Daniel Oren, complete with his Yomulka, showing vehement body and facial, involvement on the rostrum and also he having a sensitive feel for the idiom. The famous Va pensiero comes over with a pliant pleading that bites into the soul (CH.21) and is reprised (CH.22), as it so often is at perforamnces.

This production by director Arnaud Bernard focuses on the Risorgimento, the fight for freedom from the suppression by the Austrians of Northern Italy and which the music of Verdi came to be closely identified. In particular Bernard takes as his focus the events of 1848, a year of revolution and political unrest in Europe. In February bloody street fighting in Paris led to the abdication of Louis Phillipe, ‘the citizen king’, and the establishment of the Second Empire. In April, occupying Austrian troops in Milan fired on a crowd precipitating the building of barricades in the streets and five days of street fighting known as the Cinque giornate. The Austrians withdrew to defendable fortresses between Verona and Mantua rather than destroy Milan. The states of Parma, Modena and Tuscany drove out their rulers. Venice declared itself once more an independent republic. The Pope escaped from Rome disguised as an ordinary priest. However, it was a false dawn. Internecine squabbles, and the defeat of Alberto of Piedmont, who had supported the rebels, allowed the Austrians to pick off each state in turn. A year after the ‘Cinque giornate’ the Pope was back in Rome and the Austrians were again in control in northern Italy and would remain so for a further decade. In April 1848 Verdi had returned to Milan from Paris in haste and saw the gigantic barricades. To give succour to his fellow radicals he composed the hymn Suona la tromba and expressed the hope that it would be sung amid the guns on the plain of Lombardy. In reality, by its completion, the guns were already silenced.

In focusing on the Cinque giornate director Arnaud Bernard picks on those five days. The set is in two parts, on a revolve, the first is an edifice of the La Scala theatre exterior in Milan, rather than the Babylonia of the plot. The second side of the revolve reveals the inside of the theatre with the tiered boxes from which the chorus sing their roles with very full Italianate focus. The fact that the opera libretto mentions Babylonia, whilst the set and action is in Milan, can cause some confusion to watchers!

As is usual, there were several casts covering the roles over the performance period in this ninety fifth Verona season. Regrettably, many of the cast in this recording is less than either perfect or of international quality. As Nabucco himself, George Gagnidze has some international credibility. I regret to report that his vocal state, not helped by his costume at one point that makes him look more like a recent Italian dictator, with his voice lacking power and tonal variety. I will not detail my criticisms of the other principals, other than to say that although their acting is convincing in some cases, none show the vocal prowess one expects from such an internationally renowned venue! The recording in Unitel Classics Tutto Verdi series, recorded at what might be considered as the composer’s home theatre of Parma, and featuring Leo Nucci in the title role and Dimitra Theodossiou having the necessary vocal amplitude as Abigaille, serves Verdi’s music far better, albeit without the grandeur of the setting of Verona (review).

Robert J Farr

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