The return of Verdi’s “Nabucco” to the Metropolitan Opera repertoire after an absence of four decades seems to have put the company’s artistic director James Levine in a tender mood. Presumably in honor of the Verdi centennial, and the special significance of “Nabucco” in the composer’s canon, Levine is allowing an encore of the opera’s famous chorus “Va pensiero,” an unheard-of indulgence from this most scrupulous conductor.
It’s a nice gesture, to the memory of Verdi, to the hard-working chorus and to the audience, which greeted this legendary piece of music like a long-lost friend. (“Va pensiero,” a lilting lament for lost freedom that resonated deeply with the Italian populace, cemented the success of “Nabucco,” which in turn jump-started Verdi’s stalled career.)
And the repeating of the chorus can hardly be said to compromise the dramatic integrity of the opera; there ain’t much to compromise in that respect. The libretto by Temistocle Solera concerns the conflict between the Israelites, led by the high priest Zaccaria, and the Babylonian king Nabucco. It’s a bit confused, to say the least, with the action lurching speedily between both locales, apparently about 15 minutes apart by chariot. Elijah Moshinsky’s straight-faced, straightforward production marked the Met debut of veteran theater designer John Napier (“Cats,” “Les Miserables,” this season’s “Jane Eyre”), who has engineered a turntable to end all turntables, on which sits a massive mound of scenery representing the pale, stony Jerusalem and the metallic Babylon.
The meat of the drama in Babylon concerns the fight for the crown, which ping-pongs back and forth between Nabucco and his daughter Abigaille, who isn’t really his daughter at all but the offspring of a slave (but never mind). Ah, Abigaille! (That’s five syllables, by the way.) In addition to the opera’s dramatic drawbacks — a few musical ones, too — its absence from the Met repertoire can chiefly be attributed to the fabled difficulty of this role. Its murderous requirements, legend has it, ended the careers of more than one courageous soprano.
Maria Guleghina has stepped into the role for the new production, and she’s certainly armed for battle. She rushes onstage like a bat out of hell — or a Heart video from the 1980s, actually — tossing her wild tresses angrily, a murderous glint in her eye as she fondles the sword at her hip. The girl is in a bad mood for most of the opera, and gasping for breath for the remainder. This is part of the role’s difficulty, but most of it is the sheer power and agility demanded by Verdi’s music.
Guleghina met most of those demands with impressive, even hair-raising, conviction. She kept up a volcanic torrent of sound, holding her own in the ensembles and mustering a round, firm tone even at top volume — which is to say, most of the time. Perilous moments there were, some high notes that went dry, some uncertain negotiations of the coloratura passages, but it was a bravura vocal performance nonetheless.
It was also a dramatically exciting one. Not subtle, to be sure, but subtlety is not Abigaille’s strong suit, and Guleghina’s general ferocity and violent wringing of annoying documents (was she imagining a particular page of the score in her hands, perhaps?) was certainly captivating.
Elsewhere, there isn’t much call for acting, although Juan Pons, in firm voice, was affecting in Nabucco’s prayer to the Hebrews’ god for forgiveness. Fine singing was in abundance elsewhere, particularly from veteran bass Samuel Ramey, who deployed his powerful bass with impressive sensitivity. Francisco Casanova and Wendy White acquitted themselves with honor in their small-fry roles, too. And the Met chorus had an altogether wonderful evening, draped all over the two sides of Napier’s set to sing Verdi’s variously rousing or lilting choruses. Musically, the opera was well served by Levine’s conducting, its most accomplished passages standing out amid more formulaic ones.
It was a happy return, in other words, for an opera that has in fact been seen only once before at the Met, during the 1960-61 season, in a production starring the formidable Leonie Rysanek, who barely survived the run. Swank new production or no, “Nabucco” isn’t likely to return to the repertoire often — and that’s fine by me, interesting as it is to hear the sounds of Verdi’s nascent genius as interpreted by the country’s foremost opera company. Singing Abigaille is clearly a test of the nerves, but listening to it is no picnic, either.