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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL
Conductor -Riccardo Muti
Stage Director -Jean-Paul Scarpitta
Costumes -Maurizio Millenotti
Chorus Master -Roberto Gabbiani
Leo Nucci -Nabucco
Antonio Poli -Ismaele
Dmitry Beloselskly -Zaccaria
Viktoriia Chenska -Abigaille
Anna Malavasi -Fenena
As soon as he stepped onto the podium of the Rome Opera, Riccardo Muti turned to the invited audience of senior secondary school students to remind them that when Mozart visited Milan, he was still in his native Austria; when Verdi visited Milan, he was in a foreign country. The unification of Italy is a hundred and fifty years old this year and the theatre's performances of Nabucco mark this anniversary. Patriotism is still surprisingly alive in Italy; there is a We-the-People sentiment which seems to operate independently of the prevailing cynical attitude towards governance. The theatre had extended an invitation to tomorrow's audience in what was effectively an open dress rehearsal, though one with all the characteristics of the finished product. Still, I must ask readers to keep in mind these circumstances with respect to the observations which follow.
The performances had been darkened by ill omen from the planning stage. Just a few weeks ago, in Chicago, Riccardo Muti had a serious heart attack, falling and breaking his jaw and requiring hospitalisation to restructure his jaw in five places and undergo heart surgery to fit a pacemaker. All praise to the Chicago hospital: he appeared looking like his usual nimble, healthful, athletic self last night. Only a few days ago, the theatre were worried that he might not make the performances. If that is not enough, a fortnight ago, the French stage director, Jean-Paul Scarpitta, was carried off to a Rome hospital with a heart attack and is still there, his assistant having taken over the work. Elisabete Matos, who should have sung Aibigaille, was indisposed, and the part taken over by Viktoriia Chenska
Nabucco is the biblical Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon (legend has him as the creator of the Hanging Gardens) and destroyer of the first temple, who exiled the Jews from their homeland. All this is promising grit for the patriotic mill. And Verdi does not disappoint. Appropriately, this is predominantly a choral opera: a We-the-People job. The Act three prayer -Va pensiero- which the Hebrews sing in captivity, very nearly became the Italian national anthem. In fact, I keep on running into Italians who are convinced that it is.
Together with the other thirteen Italian Opera Houses, Rome is being starved of funding from the central government. That requires considerable ingenuity on the part of the theatres if they are to continue to keep their doors open and deliver productions. Jean-Paul Scarpitta displays outstanding ingenuity: grasping the nettle that this is a choral opera, he uses the chorus as scenery, grouping them in such ways as to be unfussy, strikingly dignified and natural while at the same time appearing choreographically freshly invented. Moving an Italian chorus is a challenging business, but Scarpitta meets this challenge with flying colours. For the rest, the stage is bare. But that too, with the aid of excellent lighting, underscores the drama which is taking place. Maurizio Millenoti's colourful principals' costumes add a regal touch to the finely restrained, grey, black and white of the rest.
The chorus themselves were less impressive in singing than in movement. They sounded under-rehearsed. If only the perfectly judged balance of the final cadence of Va pensiero could have been maintained throughout, one could speak of perfection, but on the way, there were some rough touches. In contrast, the orchestra responded magnificently to the conductor. As well they might. I have never heard the orchestra play with such conviction and precision as their off-the-string bowing of the overture's first allegro. This orchestra also boasts one of the country's finest cellists, and Andrea Noferini made a significant contribution in his duet with the protagonist. (Verdi, you will recall has a predilection for duets with baritone and cello: remember Rigoletto?) Mention, too, must be made of the wholesome, finely-judged, lyrical sounds of the young flautist, Matteo Evangelisti.
Leo Nucci must have sung the title role of this opera more often than he can remember. But there is nothing routine in his performance; it comes across as solidly comfortable, reconfirming his depth of vocal understanding of the role. Verdi never had a finer ambassador. Dmitry Beloselskly, in contrast, was less convincing in the all-important role of Zaccaria, a little underpowered and as though his mind was sometimes somewhere else.
Viktoriia Chenska suffers from the common defects of many singers trained in Eastern Europe. Her voice sounds as though it has been trained upside down, which is to say from the top downwards, with the training never arriving at the lower notes: sounds in this register disappear. Without any support from below, she often has to force on the top notes, which effects her intonation negatively. She has not learned the essential rule that quiet singing requires an increase in sound and projection, inversely proportional to a diminishing of volume. (Listen to Caballé to understand what I mean by this.) This results in Chenska's pianissimi sounding woefully enfeebled. There is something of the warrior maiden in the character of Abigaille. Some of us still have Dimitrova's impressive performance in our ears. But no army would willingly sign up Miss Chenska.
The vocal surprise and pleasure of the evening was the young tenor from nearby Viterbo, Antonio Poli, in the short but compelling role of Ismaele. His voice is beautifully placed, he never forces, but he makes golden tones from Verdi's score. Like Caruso, this is one of those rare baritone-quality voices which functions magnificently at tenor pitch. He also has the athletic grace of a ballerino and is handsome to boot. Watch this name.