roh_nabucco_poster_vert_285Plácido Domingo is one of the world’s greatest musicians, singers (whether baritone now, or tenor then) and humanists. Having followed his career trajectory for decades it is safe to say that last night’s performance in “Nabucco” in the lead role at the Royal Opera House was not a valedictory one. It was triumphal.

I first heard Plácido as Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly” and he was naturalistic and thrilling. One could not ever forget his magnificent voice, or his acting skills: his convincing cynicism about taking a fourteen-year-old bought bride (Anna Moffo) to bed, and equally convincing remorse when Cho Cho San, (after he had abandoned her), gives up her child to him, and then takes her own life. We have heard him perform in all the great operas (much of Verdi), including those of Wagner, an enormous challenge for any tenor. As Siegmund, the ill-fated Walsung twin, I noted at the time how brave he was. There he was in his early-sixties hurling himself around the stage, falling to the ground, engaging in a vigorous axe fight, and singing his heart out from a lying-down position. We all knew by then that this man, of all the tenors in our time, was the most special. He has outlasted and outperformed everyone. He sings. He conducts. He educates.

Last night he performed a lead role and was in great voice. “Nabucco” was Verdi’s third opera and his first great success. The music is incredibly beautiful, but what a confused story. The Royal Opera version, replete with the most gorgeous chorus (they are the real stars of the production) is set some time in the 1930s. The Hebrews are obviously victims of not just the Assyrians, but of the Nazis. Frankly I wasn’t convinced by the costuming that I was witnessing an operatic version of the Holocaust. The story of Nabucco, or Nebuchchadnezzar, is the story of the destruction of the Temple of the Hebrews, the razing of it stone by stone, and the captivity and exile of the Jews. It is not about systematic industrial-size annihilation, and so that costume conceit didn’t quite fit the story.

However, “Nabucco” is really about Power, like most things. War rages between the Hebrews and the Babylonians. Will the Babylonian King Nabucco and his vengeful adopted daughter Abigaille destroy the Hebrews (she finds out accidentally that she is really the daughter of slaves)? Will Fenena, his real daughter, who has fallen in love with a Jewish diplomat (whom Abigaille lusts after) and has converted, be destroyed by Abigaille in a jealous rage? Will Nabucco get over his fit of madness in time to thrwart Abigaille and save Fenena? Will God punish Nabucco for his misdeeds, or will he be saved by conversion to the true faith. Will the Chief Priest be able to hold the tribe together, and will everyone in the gigantic chorus finish their singing together and on time? These are deep questions and mostly resolved by the end of the opera. The singing was fantastic especially Luidmyla Monastyrska who literally sang her Assyrian socks off in the role of Abigaille. Her voice was like shining well honed steel in the highly dramatic first and second acts, and pathetic in the final scene where she begs forgiveness from her father, having poisoned herself after failing to defeat the Hebrews utterly. Does this sound a bit complicated?

Zaccaria, the High Priest of the Hebrews, sung by John Relyea, was notably dignified with profound bass tones in full control. Jamie Barton, though somewhat overly rotund, managed to be light on her feet, and feminine and touching as Fenena.

All in all the audience loved “Nabucco” and cried for more at the end. Flowers were thrown from the stalls, a pretty touch.

Kaaren Hale

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