Review: Fink, Valayre and Aceto in San Diego Opera’s Exceptional “Nabucco” – February 20, 2010

There is a tendency to think of the operas written by Verdi as a genre that differs from those of the early 19th century Italian operas of the “bel canto era“. During that period, according to opera lore, the singing was florid, pretty, but dramatically vapid. In the opera goers’ understanding of the history of opera, three composers share the bel canto stage – Gioacchino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti.

In this view of the art form’s history, both music and plots of bel canto operas are formulaic, the latter not particularly comprehensible, with the music organized to maximize the exposition of the singer’s technique. To reform opera, Verdi struggled against these old ways of composing and created a new style that lasted for decades until Puccini and the verismo composers developed even newer styles for singing and presenting the drama.

There is a reason why many  people who like opera tend to believe the statements in the above paragraphs as fact. It’s the view that prevailed in the early 20th century as to how the standard repertory came to be. Because most operas of the the three bel canto composers had disappeared from the repertory – save Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” (which never was in danger of disappearing) and star turn performances of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and rarely Bellini’s “Norma” and Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” –  much of the rest of the output of these three composers, with only the most sporadic exceptions, was never performed. Similarly, the operas of Verdi composed before his “Rigoletto” were considered antique curiosities.

Current scholarship, and the experience from multiple productions in recent decades of many major bel canto and early Verdi works,  has revised the understanding of  Italian operas from the first half of the 19th century. These revisionist ideas are reflected on this website.  It’s appropriate now to have a different impression of early 19th century opera, and of the transitional times between “eras”.

We can now see Rossini as a revolutionary innovator, whose changes in the art form quickly became formulas that other composers were expected to observe. We can also appreciate that Bellini and Donizetti, two men who tragically died early in their careers, each struggled to improve the dramatic content and flow of operas, and, especially in the latter’s case, to a considerable extent achieved that goal. And one can now see the great influence that Donizetti’s achievements had on Verdi. It’s hard to imagine the creation of what we think of as Verdian opera if the operas of, say, the last 15 years of Donizetti’s prodigious output never existed.

What is not appreciated, even by some of the people who produce operas, is the extent that Donizetti and Verdi were friends and collaborators. It was instructive for this reviewer to see Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” on a Friday night at the Dallas Opera (See my review at Spirited, Beautifully Sung “Don Pasquale” at Dallas Opera – February 19, 2010) and Verdi’s “Nabucco” the next night at the San Diego opera.

[Below: the Assyrian court in Michael Yeargan’s sets for “Nabucco”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

The two operas are written in different styles, of course. No part of “Nabucco” is intended to be funny. Nor is most of “Don Pasquale”, excepting perhaps the scene in which Pasquale expresses his despair at his humiliation, meant to be serious. But both “Nabucco” and “Don Pasquale” were Donizetti artistic products that occupied his time during the years 1842 and 1843. He himself wrote “Pasquale”. But he also took on the task of assisting Verdi in the diffusion of “Nabucco” to Austria after its successful premiere in Milan.

Donizetti was 16 years older than Verdi. The two men had both lost their wives to tragic illnesses. Donizetti seemed at the height of his artistic powers, although he soon would begin to suffer the debilitation of the third stage syphilis that infected him.

Verdi had experienced a fiasco in his second opera, “Un Giorno di Regno”, a comic opera, that he had to complete and stage during a time of grief. He was finally coaxed into writing “Nabucco”. Donizetti, who now is recognized as a great composer in both the comic and tragic genres, obviously liked Verdi’s new opera, and agreed to take on the musical preparation and to conduct it for its Vienna premiere.

Donizetti’s encouragement (and perhaps his demonstration that the elder master could still write comic operas of the quality of “Don Pasquale” – considerably superior to Verdi’s “Giorno di Regno”) –  set Verdi on his path of concentrating on improving the dramatic content and style of Italian opera, and not returning to comic opera for nearly half a century. In “Nabucco”  one grasps the genius of the future Verdi, in the extraordinary writing of Nabucco’s  part and Zaccaria’s Preghiera, while seeing the incorporation of elements influenced by Donizetti’s mature style.

The San Diego Opera Cast

San Diego Opera assembled an important cast to mount the work. (Oddly, two of the three principals – Fink and Aceto – were not the artists originally expected to appear, but it is inconceivable that the results could have been any better than that of the team that San Diego Opera’s General Director Ian Campbell had in place for the production’s opening night.)

Richard Paul Fink  has become one of the world’s most impressive Alberichs for the three operas in Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelungs” in which the character appears. In Nabucco’s title role, he demonstrated that he is also a great Verdi baritone, in an impeccably sung, and aggressively acted. performance. One of the attractions of the role is its opportunity to demonstrate one’s histrionic talents, with scenes in which the Assyrian monarch is alternatively mentally deranged and lucid.

“Mad scenes” are an extraordinary opportunity for a brilliant singer who is also a good actor to astonish and connect with an audience. Although there are several such opportunities for bel canto sopranos, they are almost non-existent for Verdian baritones, who generally play the solid, even stolid, fathers, brothers, and counselors whose emotions (other than cries for vengeance) are not so vividly displayed.

[Below: Nabucco (Richard Paul Fink) in a state of mental distress; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

San Diego Opera used Michael Yeargan’s “Nabucco” sets from the Lyric Opera in Chicago. It is a unit set which serves as both the Hebrew Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and as the throne room, hanging gardens and royal apartments that the Assyrians occupy in Babylon. To help  clarify the demarcation between what is Hebrew space and Assyrian, the San Diego Opera added a series of projections that were developed by the San Diego Opera Scenic Studios. (I personally would have encouraged them to project the bright blue Babylonian walls that one sees in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, but do believe the projections were mostly effective.)

The plot is a bit less complex than it at first seems. The Israeli ambassador to the Assyrians, the tenor Ismaele (nicely sung by Arthur Shen) has caught the eye of two women raised as sisters and as the daughters of King Nabucco. The king has decided to invade Jerusalem and found a pretext to imprison Ismaele, but the younger daughter, Fenena, has helped him escape back to Jerusalem. Ismaele and Fenena have fallen in love and she wishes to convert to Juadaism.

The older daughter, Abigaille, has suffered two blows – rejection by her would-be lover Ismaele, and being passed over as regent in favor of her younger sister, Fenena, while her father, Nabucco, is on his campaign to subject the Jews to his suzerainty. Nabucco, Fenena, and Abigaille, all with quite different motivations, travel from Babylon to Jerusalem.

[Below: the Assyrian king Nabucco (Richard Paul Fink, right back) has defiled and looted the Jewish Temple,to the dismay of his daughter Fenena (Susana Poretsky, left) who loves the Jewish ambassador Ismaele (Arthur  Shen, foreground); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Abigaille, investigating why she was passed over for the regency, discovers that she is illegitimate, the daughter of a slave. At once, she takes part in intrigues with Assyrian priests of the god Baal, to remove Nabucco from power and install herself as monarch.

The role of Abigaille is one of the most treacherous in Italian opera, with extraordinary cadenzas that descend into the chest voice and then leap into the top of the soprano range . French soprano Sylvie Valayre is one of the few sopranos in history to make Abigaille a signature role.

Valayre has become a specialist in this role as well as that of Lady Macbeth (see my review of her Lady at  Power Verdi: Stoyanov, Valayre Mesmerizing in Berlin Staatsoper “Macbeth” – April 24, 2009.)

[Below: Abigaille (Sylvie Valayre), discovering that she is the illegitimate daughter of a slave, determines to lead a coup to seize the Assyrian throne; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

She portrayed the character’s vulnerability, particularly in the beautiful aria Anch’io dischiuso un giorno, humanizing this rather unsympathetic character in a way one rarely sees. What Valayre shows us is that, with all its pyrotechnics, the music of Abigaille is fundamentally beautiful and the role can be made really interesting in the right hands. Those in the San Diego Opera audience heard an incredible performance of a role that takes survival skills to perform.

[Below: the regent Abigaille (Sylvie Valayre) refuses to permit Nabucco (Richard Paul Fink) to recover his throne; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

The third principal was Raymond Aceto, a favorite basso cantante of this website. Originally, the great basso Ferruccio Furlanetto had agreed to do the part of Zaccaria, but, having recently tried out the role (having not performed it for many years), asked the San Diego Opera to release him from a commitment that he felt was no longer right for his voice. He recommended Aceto to the San Diego Opera, who agreed to sign him for the role. (When I mentioned Furlanetto’s recommendation to Aceto, he was surprised and appeared deeply affected to learn that a distinguished colleague had been behind San Diego Opera requesting him to be their Zaccaria.)

Aceto had sung the part of the High Priest of Baal when this production was mounted in Chicago, but his voice is clearly able to handle Zaccaria’s three quite different major arias, each of which is a masterpiece in its own right. Two of the arias are in the bel canto style. The third, the Preghiera, heralds Verdi’s new directions for the basso voice, exemplified in such roles as Banquo in “Macbeth”, Fiesco in “Simon Boccanegra” and similar roles of his more mature style.

A significant feature of most bel canto and of Verdi’s operas through “Il Trovatore” is the double aria, particularly those that follow the cavatina-cabaletta convention. In the cabalettas there are two verses (each with the same words), the first followed by a transitional stretta and then the  second verse. In the middle of the 19th century, with Verdi’s support for the convention’s elimination, they began to be considered unfashionable.

This website has supported the restoration of the strettas and second cabaletta verses, especially when there are artists that have the stamina and technical skill to sing the second cabaletta verse in the way they were intended to be sung. Conductor Edoardo Mueller indeed restored the strettas and permitted both Aceto and Valayre to sing both verses of their major cabalettas. Both artists, of course, added additional vocal ornamentation to the second cabaletta verse as the tradition dictates.

The high quality of singing of the three principals, and of Shen as Ismaele, were complemented by fine performances by Susana Poretsky as Fenena, Alfred Walker as the High Priest of Baal, Joseph Hu as Abdallo and Priti Gandhi as Zaccaria’s sister Anna. Additionally, the chorus master, Timothy Todd Simmons, and Lighting Designer Michael Whitfield both deserve special recognition.

[Below: the Jewish high priest Zaccaria (Raymond Aceto) comforts the convert Fenena (Susana Poretsky) as the High Priest of Baal (Alfred Walker ) looks on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

The stage director for the San Diego performances is Lotfi Mansouri,  recently honored as one of the early recipients of the National Endowment of the Arts Honors in Opera. Mansouri staging observes the traditions of bel canto opera, in which there are key moments when the composer expects both audience and singer to concentrate on what is being sung, and how it is being sung,  rather than on what the singers are doing.

A supreme example in “Nabucco” is the concert piece, S’appresan gl’istanti, in which Nabucco, who had been reported as dead, suddenly appears, and, in the form of a round or canon, Abigaille, then Ismaele, then Fenena, and then Zaccaria and the chorus join in the melody, each character expressing her or his astonishment. A stage director who tries to have these characters doing anything other than standing in place silently until their part requires them to sing, misses the point of the bel canto set piece, where the music, rather than the stage movements, provides the drama. Sometimes opera singers are expected to stand and sing.

“Nabucco” is an opera in which the chorus plays an active part, and Mansouri was effective in incorporating the chorus into the drama. The most famous moment in “Nabucco”, the chorus of the captive Jews, was memorably staged and superbly sung by the San Diego Opera Chorus.

[Below: the condemned Jews, on the Banks of the Euphrates River, sing their prayer of salvation; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

However, with much to praise in every part of the production,  the stunning performance of Fink was its most remarkable feature. When he came forward at opera’s end for his curtain call, he received a spontaneous standing ovation from the large and vociferous San Diego Opera crowd.

[Below: Nabucco (Richard Paul Fink) engages the attention of Abdallo (Joseph Hu); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera. ]

As Verdi’s bicentennial year approaches in 2013, the performances of Fink, Valayre and Aceto suggest that great performances of “Nabucco” will continue to occur.