Nabucco

Date: May 22, 2013
Conductor: Eugene Kohn
Production: Gilbert Deflo
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Nabucco is widely accepted as the work that Verdi finally matured to his own. When Verdi composed it, it was not long after his wife Margherita died of encephalitis. An angle of redemption is thus widely interpreted to exist in Nabucco – one of spiritual renewal and enlightenment. When tenor Placido Domingo attempted the baritone title role as a septuagenarian, could he be invoking a similar angle of redemption too?

As a tenor during his prime, Domingo has excelled and been widely acclaimed in roles that require shades of baritonal qualities, such as Lohengrin and Siegmund. Domingo’s slightly baritonal timbre afforded him to excel in those roles, but also led to critics to suggest that he was never a tenor to begin with, especially, albeit perhaps unfairly, when the tenor began to transpose down in the twilight of his tenor career. As a baritone, Domingo’s top notes effuse the sort of fluidic, airy ring that differentiates a tenor from a baritone. In the middle registers, where Domingo sounds best, his voice nurses a timbre that is both velvety and coarse (in a controlled kind of way). As Nabucco, which turns out to be Domingo’s first stage performance in China in nearly thirty years (that did not include a private concert performance of Simon Boccanegra in Beijing a couple of years ago), his finest dramatic moment was at the end of Act II, when he started to look and act with an exacting, almost haunting, confusion. In “Dio”, Domingo sounded caringly paternal, while Leo Nucci sounded, in comparison, though not in any disparaging way, somewhat dismissively possessive. The major difference was effectively one of interpretation, not necessarily one of vocal output. Any suggestion that Domingo was singing baritone roles so that he could redeem towards his true self seems rubbish. In my opinion, Domingo simply feels that he was ready to interpret these baritonal roles dramatically, and has both the support of his tessitura (though not necessarily the perfect timbre and delivery) and house directors. Surely, why not?

The role of Abigaille has confounded many singers in the past. Sun Xiuwei (孙秀苇) portrayed a daughter whose fury was eventually usurped by an un-containable guilt. When she was furious, Sun’s facial expression was monstrous. In her final scene before her ultimate downfall, she looked spent but seemed ready to accept her fate. Vocally, Sun’s liberal mannerism could be irritating, but that was the least of her problems. Sun had pitch problems for much of the night, especially in the upper registers where she tended to flat going into most of her top notes. In Abigaille’s treacherous lower registers, her voice was practically chewed up by the vastness of the NCPA. A better actor than singer, at least in this evening, Sun was markedly better in her Act I focal point – the more dramatically expressive cavatina – than in the subsequent, the more technical, cabaletta.

Li Xiaoliang (李晓良) towered as Zaccaria with a stentorian bass, and provided some of the finest singing of the evening. In his Act I cabaletta, he lit up the stage while encouraging the Jews to rebel against the invasion. In the supplementary roles, Jin Zhengjian (金郑建) was dutiful and dramatically effective as Ismaele, especially at the end of Act 1 when he blossomed with anger and dismay while being wrongfully accused. Yang Guang (杨光) gushed with melancholic sadness as Fenena.

The production was not particularly impressive but serviceable with occasional interesting moments, including when Nabucco orders the destruction of the Temple of Solomon, whereupon a slow-motion projection depicting temple bricks falling down on the upstage scrim was powerfully effective. Kohn was a little dragging at the beginning but picked up pace in Act III. The orchestra was thin in the strings and suffered some mistakes in the brass, during much of Act III, as well as in Fenena’s Act IV numbers.

Placido Domingo, as Nabucco in Beijing

Placido Domingo, as Nabucco in Beijing.

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Nabucco

Date: April 6, 2013
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Production: Daniele Abbado
Location: Covent Garden, London.

This production was supposed to be Leo Nucci’s triumphant moment. Nucci was supposed to be the headliner, in a new Covent Garden production on the eve of Verdi’s bicentennial. As the anointed King of Babylon he would bow to no one except the Verdi gods.

And then Placido Domingo entered the fray. He would not only sign onto the production, but sign onto the title role. And it would be his role debut on the floor where he initially debuted, as a tenor, some forty years ago. Naturally, the press zoomed in on the Domingo storyline, casually forgetting that the King of Babylon has long been anointed. Nucci would still open the production, but all eyes focused on Domingo’s role debut a fortnight later. Poor Leo.

Poorer still, was Nucci’s performance tonight. His voice, assertive, brimmed with cracking firepower. His timbre properly flexed to reveal one of a relentless boxer before the interval, and one of a hapless aging man thereafter. In terms of projection, his ringing high notes easily caught at the end of the upper slips. When Nabucco challenges Abigaille to take the crown from him in “S’appressan gl’istanti”, his voice unleashed with atypical fury. Dramatically, however, Nucci could simply not fit into Daniele Abbado’s empty stage without looking like a lost impala in the vastness of Serengeti. The stage’s relative barrenness made the short and fit baritone look even less regal; without Verdi’s musical cues, his stage entrance as the King of Babylon would have been unnoticeable. Nucci’s body told the story of the production’s problems, as his hands seemed to relish but could not find a prop to hold onto. Nucci’s body showed up, but never inhabited the stage. He moved about, but never occupied. Domingo may not be a better baritone, but he would surely occupy the stage with better dramatics and authority. In the rest of the cast, Liudmyla Monastyrska provided a subtle but effective Abigaille, while Marianna Pizzolato offered good dramatics and reasonably adequate grasp of Fenena’s formidable passages. Vitalij Kowaljow, as Zaccaria, was comfortable in his range, and seemed much more ready and determined to make his stage presence known, even in Abbado’s precarious nothingness. Even for those opera goers who are not familiar with the plot line, the stage aura of Zaccaria and Nabucco foretold from the very beginning the latter’s eventual fall from grace.

Nicola Luisotti made the orchestra sound charming, while the warm chorus shone brightly and in one coherent whole. The stage actors – spending a majority of their time looking into the audience – rarely looked at each other on stage, perhaps because they did not feel they belonged there. And they shouldn’t, because the stage offered very little for them to react against. There is nothing wrong with a grey-shaded, simple production, but something must not be right if I almost felt like I paid a fortune to go to an un-staged concert version of Nabucco.

Leo Nucci, in Royal Opera's Nabucco

Leo Nucci, in Royal Opera’s Nabucco.

Rigoletto

Date: August 28, 2011
Conductor: Lü Jia
Director: Stefano Vizioli
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Rigoletto returns to the NCPA after two consecutive years of monstrous box office. Desiree Rancatore and Leo Nucci flew in for two of this year’s four performances, but the TFS, having heard the duo thrice in the past two years, opted for one of the other two performances with an all-Chinese cast.

Yuan Chenye (袁晨野) delivered a vocally masterful performance as Rigoletto. His stentorian voice easily carried over the Lü Jia-directed NCPA Orchestra. Yuan’s timbre was somewhat monotone, but was saved by the size of his voice and his passionate stage presence. Xue Haoyin (薛皓垠), as the Duke, had an Italianate voice, combining rich colorings of uttered syllables with a bright, crisp sound. His acting denied him a flawless outing, as he did not seem comfortable singing and acting at the same time. His beautiful, seductive lines in Bella figlia found very little in common with his stiffened body on stage, making the audience wonder whether Maddalena was merely seducing a singing but otherwise lifeless Roman sculpture. Yao Hong (幺红) had a questionable evening as Gilda. Her voice lacked control, as evidenced by various overparted top notes in Caro nome and then in Si, vendetta! She also looked visibly strained as she navigated those higher registers. Nonetheless she attempted the optional E-flat at the end of the third Act quartet, to the bewilderment of some audience members. Song Wei (宋委), with her candied visage and foxy body, had all the visual qualities of a seductive Maddalena, but her intonation proved average and the size of her voice remained so small that she and not Yao was the weakest link in that quartet.