NEW YORK—”Nabucco,” which premiered in 1842 at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, was Verdi’s first opera to achieve popular success. This season, the Metropolitan Opera is reviving Elijah Moshinsky’s 15-year-old production. The main draw, and subject of some controversy, is that the opera stars Plácido Domingo in the title role, with James Levine conducting.
The opera takes place in Jerusalem and Babylon during the sixth century B.C. Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar), the king of Babylon, is waging war against the Israelites. Nabucco’s daughter Fenena is a captive of the Israelites, and she is in love with Ismaele (the nephew of the king of Jerusalem). Fenena’s half-sister Abigaille appears, and she also happens to be smitten with Ismaele.
Abigaille offers to save the Israelites if Ismaele will reciprocate her love, but he declines. Then, Nabucco storms in with this troops. Zaccaria (the high priest of the Israelites) threatens to execute Fenena, but Ismaele saves her, after which Nabucco orders that the temple be demolished.
In the second act, set in the royal palace in Babylon, Abigaille discovers documented proof that she is the child of slaves and not Nabucco’s daughter. She fears that Fenena and Ismaele will run the country and swears vengeance against them and Nabucco. She then learns that Fenena (who has been named regent while her father is off fighting the wars) has freed the Israelite prisoners.
Abigaille conspires with the high priest of Baal to spread word that the king is dead so she can take over the country. The plan is momentarily foiled when Nabucco shows up. However, he suffers from the vanity that often afflicts heads of state and declares himself a god. A thunderbolt puts him back in his place, which gives Abigaille the opportunity to take over.
Nabucco, still alive but with diminished power, pleads with Abigaille to spare Fenena’s life. He thinks he has possession of the document recording Abigaille’s lowly birth, but she brandishes the paper and rips it up in his presence.
The captive Israelites express their longing to return to their homeland. Zaccaria assures them that God will save them and smite the Babylonians.
When Nabucco sees his daughter and the Israelites being led off to their execution, he converts to Judaism. This restores his powers and he joins with his troops to save Fenena and the others. The defeated Abigaille takes poison but, before she dies, confesses her sins.
Nabucco declares to all that he is a convert and orders the freedom of the Israelites. Thus, peace is achieved, and Fenena and Ismaele can live happily ever after.
The most famous piece in the opera is the Act 3 chorus, “Va, pensiero,” in which the captive Israelites sing of their longing to return to their homeland. This resonated with the Italian people and became an unofficial national anthem during the Risorgimento era, just as the slaves in America used the Egyptian bondage depicted in the spiritual “Go Down Moses” to represent their own prayer for liberation. The chorus was performed at Verdi’s funeral and, in the Met’s revival, was one of the rare pieces that received such sustained applause that it was repeated.
The second strongest audience reaction was to Domingo’s performance of Nabucco’s Act 4 prayer for strength after he is struck down, “Dio di Giuda.” Now 75, Domingo has in recent years been singing baritone roles, mostly in Verdi operas such as this one. While some critics have called for his retirement from singing, he still connects with audiences. His voice may not have the right timbre for these roles, but his tone is firm and powerful and his acting commanding.
Since true Verdi baritones are nowadays few and far between, I don’t perceive any reason for Domingo to retire from singing while he can continue on this level.
The same could be said for the 73-year-old Levine, who now conducts from a wheelchair. Met audiences were thrilled to see him, and he conducted “Nabucco” with flair and sensitivity.
The rest of the cast was up to the Met’s usual high standards. In the daunting role of Abigaille, soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska sang with fire and accuracy. She knocked out high notes as if she was hitting home runs, though her voice was more pleasing in the quiet passages.
Bass Dmitry Belosselskiy was solid as the high priest Zaccaria. Two rising American stars played the lovers: mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is Fenena and tenor Russell Thomas is Ismaele, and both were superb.
“Nabucco” is not one of Verdi’s more popular operas, and this was not a perfect performance, but the rewards are ample, as the audience applause and cheering confirmed.
The final performance, the matinee on Jan. 7, will be broadcast worldwide as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series.
The Metropolitan Opera
30 Lincoln Center Plaza
Tickets: 212-362-6000 or MetOpera.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 44 minutes
Closes: Jan. 7
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.