Monday 1 April 2013

Massimo Nabucco

The Royal Opera's inopportune scheduling of its Nabucco first night on Easter Saturday meant that none of us from The Arts Desk could be there to cover it (I've just come back from a weekend in the bosom of Chichester Cathedral, courtesy of dear friends who live in the former chantry there). I somehow doubt they'll yield us a ticket when Domingo rolls up (addendum, 16/4 - they did: the review's now up), though there's always the live screening. Daniele Abbado's setting seems to be the now-usual 20th centry clash of suits with yarmulkes and prayer shawls; I'd love to see a production where Verdi's Nabucco and Co were Israelis and his Hebrews transformed into Palestinians. Given the constitution of opera house boards, not to mention sponsors, I doubt if that will be allowed to happen.

None of this touched the Nabucco we did see, in Palermo's awe-inspiring Teatro Massimo two Fridays ago. The work of director Saverio Marconi, whose main claim to fame would seem to be as the protagonist of the Taviani brothers' dour cinematic masterpiece Padre Padrone, its chief virtue is stillness, though of the tableau barely-vivant nature we last witnessed in London with the aged Bolshoi production of the Rimsky-arranged Boris Godunov.

Production photographs are courtesy of Lannino/Archivio del Teatro Massimo; theatre shots outside and in are mine. Vaguely Biblical costumes by Carla Ricotti steered just clear of the ridiculous; the lighting by Roberto Venturi cradled some effective still-lives. But I'd have to ask, from experience of the ENO and previous Royal Opera productions, whether any update can bring significance to the young Verdi's energetic but mostly callow drama.

We took it as part of a very authentic Teatro Massimo experience, no doubt more so than the Graham Vick Ring there which has just reached its halfway mark. And this was a prima, albeit of a revived production, so Palermitan society was out in its finest (which mostly meant conformist with a few flamboyant out-standers - namely a lady in fur stole and a stubbled tranny in evening dress whom all the worthies seemed to know and accept). At 8pm, with the performance due in half an hour, there were few signs of life as J hit the red carpet on the steps made infamous in the denouement of Coppola's disappointing Part Three of The Godfather.

We found ourselves wandering around the new exhibition of designs for Verdi productions just before it was officially opened; ushered out, we then stood and joined the applause as a dignitary I'm unable to name cut the tricolore tape and we followed the lady of the stole down a corridor of old posters to the central pergola of artistic enterprise.

Two convents and a church were pulled down to make way for the Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele, cynosure of late 19th century Palermo's eyes (we know this startling fact because we were later told so by the charming and cultured husband of our vivacious hostess in Via Butera 28, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, the adopted son of Leopard master Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and an operatic doyen/intendant in his own right. He was to show us the handsome balustrade from one of the destroyed convents in its present position lining the grand staircase to Lampedusa's piano nobile.

Basile, the architect whose original concept, begun in 1874, was only completed in 1897 some years after his death, incorporated classical designs from the key Greek temples scattered around Sicily. The end product became the largest opera house in Italy, and third only in Europe to Paris's Palais Garnier and Vienna's State (formerly Court) Opera. It should have seated 3000, but - I guess because of the Italian space-wasting but beautiful tradition of boxes rising, in this instance, six tiers high -

accommodates a mere 1350. We're lucky to see it now because the closure for restoration, begun in 1974, took almost exactly as long as the construction (and that had an interval of eight years). The extensive spaces around the auditorium seem already peeling and cracked, but once inside, you can only gape at the rosy lighting and the predictably post-rococo ceiling painting.

There were three exceptional aspects to the Nabucco. First, the conductor, Renato Palumbo, whose flexibility and attention to dynamic detail immediately manifested themselves in a handsome Sinfonia. The pleasingly airy sound of the Teatro Massimo Orchestra was epitomised by the bright but not overbearing brass - offstage, of course, in the banda, as well as on. I was curious to take a look at the two flicorni before the beginning of the second half (Italians have trimmed their intervals, thank goodness - we could have had three. As we once did for a Rome Manon Lescaut where the intervals took much longer than the opera and the whole thing finished after 1am). Palumbo took the cabalettas, I felt, a little too fast for the occasional desired largesse of phrasing, but there never seemed to be any problems of co-ordination between singers and pit.

The second unexpected glory was the lyric-dramatic soprano tackling the insane role of tigress Abigaille, Anna Pirozzi.

This, I thought not long after she opened her mouth, is very nearly as good as our current phenomenon in such roles, Liudmila Monastyrska (who, sure enough, turns out to be singing the role at Covent Garden): the same rock-solid technique, the same Brünnhilde-ish flaming top, an ability to lighten up for the runs and trills. Only there, perhaps, is Pirozzi a fraction less agile than Monastyrska. Nor, on this evidence, is she as good an actress (looks-wise, as you can see, she's a bit Gran Scena-ish; you can imagine her chewing the lionskin carpet as Amneris, a role which with her strong chest voice she could easily manage).

But then no-one showed any histrionic talent other than the sinuous Annalisa Stroppa as Fenena, giving that relatively thankless soprano role more than it deserved. There was a perfectly solid, loud Nabucco from George Gagnidze, who at least softened up in repentance.

The Zaccaria, Luiz Ottavio Faria, looked rather gruesome but at least was the real if generic bass article and in Verdi's unusually small tenor role, Gaston Rivero sufficed as a rather nasal kind of Italianate tenor. The chorus, though, rose to the heights and - most crucially - observed the pianissimi Palumbo asked of them. And this, of course, was the third delight: 'Va, pensiero' done not only as written but subsequently bissato, ie subjected to what I am told are the usual cries of bis, and repeated lock, stock and barrel, introduction included.

Was this usual? 'Of course', said Gioacchino later, 'it's the national pride'. This former intendant of Naples' San Carlo, among other notable posts, wasn't much impressed by anything other than the conducting. Not even our Abigaille? 'Well, I saw Suliotis here in the 1970s...'. It should also be added that Gioacchino, as an ardent as well as scholarly Bellinian, thinks opera in Italy was set back several decades after his idol's death, though he finds Verdi more than worthy from the mid-period onwards..

Otherwise, the audience seemed unnaturally subdued, not especially excited by Pirozzi's fireworks; in fact much as we found the Palermitans - though not the proud townsfolk of Castelbuono in the Madonie mountains - to be in general. Anyway, a six-minute montage of this cast proved reluctant to embed itself; to get some idea of the varying talents and the pageant-like staging, take a look here

Earlier in the day we'd bumped serendipitously into that remarkable polymath Sebastian Scotney and his partner Monika. As we lunched and they drank in a rather fine newish Kalsa eatery, we learnt that they were heading for this Nabucco's second night, and second cast. Hopefully this will lure Sebastian out of his jazz lair to give a report on that presumably very different experience by way of comment.


The LondonJazz site said...

David what a pleasure to run into you both out there! Palermo with nineteen degrees AND fragoline di bosco in March is probably too good a secret not to get out!

On the second/ Saturday night Palumbo was completely relaxed, and coaxing great sounds out of the orchestra. It looked to me like he was doing the whole piece from memory (?) Bags of character, and the percussionists were crisp and clean and absolutely on it right up until that mad final timpani roll!

I was amused by how few of the locals entrusted their winter finery to the cloakroom and brought it in to the auditorium with them.

Like you I was completely surprised by how few Palermitans around us in the stalls bothered to applaud or react. Others of your readers presumably know what's normal in Italian opera houses.

Star of the second cast for me was the Crimean bass Mikhail Ryssov. The huge voice took a couple of minutes to settle, but then the tone just poured forth. Glorious. Ryssov must have seen off an awful lot of Assyrians in his time. Hearing a voice of that scale, power and persuasivenesss, they just don't tend to hang around. A taste HERE

David said...

Numi, Sebastian, that was quick. Likewise a great pleasure and surprise (it looks as if we should have gone to your Pizzeria Bellini as it was a famous Lampedusa hangout, even if you implied it wasn't what it used to be).

Ryssov: very impressive. Lucky you to have someone doing justice to my favourite solo in the opera, Zaccaria's prayer with the cellos. I was listening to it with Nesterenko on the Sinopoli recording on Friday and sighing...Ghiaurov must have done it too.

We bought some fragoline di bosco (that's wild strawberries to the rest of you) in the Capo market, but they were not of the sweetest variety - tasted, as Pears's Aschenbach enunciates so memorably in Death in Venice, 'musteh, over-ripe'. What I think of most in this chill is the wisteria, incipient on the trellising of our mountain agriturismo and refulgent in Cefalu. Will try to hold on to that memory...

David Damant said...

Would it not be best if there were no applause at any stage of an opera except at the ends of the acts? I have often observed that applauding porgi amor or dove sono or indeed anything but a jolly aria means that people are enjoying a song as in the Victorian drawing room song ( "My dear, the music !") instead of following the drama as portrayed in the music. In the face of a great work of art enjoyment lies in the better understanding of the human predicament, not having a amusing time.

David said...

I know your views on this, Sir David, but as Nabucco is hardly one of the greatest statements of the human predicament - 'Va, pensiero' notwithstanding - and positively pole-vaults towards applause after its various cabalettas of indiscriminate vitality (that phrase again), the absence of enthusiastic applause was very weird indeed.

Perhaps the famous chorus was the only number which could have done without it, as this piece was conceived in tandem with Zaccaria's curse which follows. But of course that had the loud cries of 'bis' and applause for several minutes before the conductor bowed to the inevitable.

I must make you party some time soon to Lampedusa's very interesting views on the bad effects on literature and art of Italian opera. Thoughtful as always.

David Damant said...

With reference to Naples' San Carlo, perhaps I could repeat a remark made to me by the late Sir Ian Hunter, that I must most certainly attend a performance of an opera in the Italian repertoire at San Carlo, as there one could experience the opera without the restraint one sees in a performance at - I thought he was going to say the Met or the Royal Opera House - at La Scala !!

David said...

I can well understand that. The Neapolitans make not only the Milanese but also the Romans and the Palermitans seem almost northern in their relatively reserved temperaments.

Susan Scheid said...

Ah, well, there is no disguising how out of my league I am here! Still, I enjoy being able to eavesdrop, and to get in the spirit of things, I right now am playing Va, pensiero for a second time. (Any minute now, I'm going to drive David D nuts by standing to applaud (just kidding).) At the Met these days, BTW, in my highly limited experience, applause happens with, to me, inexplicable frequency. Reminds me of going to Spamalot on Broadway, in the days where our household could be convinced to go anywhere near a B'way theater. In that case, people applauded as each song started, and sometimes, it seemed to me, in anticipation, knowing just what was coming up. I often had no idea what was going on, even though I had watched Monty Python on occasion in the day. Well, what a wonderful, wonderful holiday you've had! I look forward to further reports.

David said...

Yes, applause at the start often seems to me like a pat on the back to self for recognising the intro. As with Liza, though I could identify the thrill when the sax came in to herald 'Maybe this time' and likewise the Cabaret hit song. It's a bit nauseating how Wigmore audiences make a collective 'ahhh' at the beginning of an encore they recognise. All the more reason for choosing rarities.

As for the Broadway standing ovation, I think I've told you how the couple sitting next to us talked all the way through an OKish Flower Drum Song and then shot to their feet with the rest of the audience (not us) at the end.

wanderer said...

I am so loving this, and pop in here to stutter out a few quickies before moving right along.

David Damant's mention (a wee while back) of the species being hard wired for religion (if I recall correctly) stirred me to thinking, not that that was the first time I'd dwelt upon it, and it makes, to me, more sense that we are wired for a belief in our own immortality, or more specifically, the inability to accept a dissolve into nothingness. Religion, and I'm tempted to add unfortunately, is the result, rather than the beginning.

And I add, we did the wiring.

As for (inappropriate) applause, as for Nabucco, as for spectacular Abigaille's - you youtube led me here. We had no idea how lucky we were.

David said...

Ah, the divine Rita. Will listen when I have a spare five minutes. I saw her once, as Leonora in Trovatore, replacing Martina Arroyo at Covent Garden and singing in English to Bergonzi who was, of course, performing in the original Italian (and against a pure black backdrop as the sceneshifters were on strike). The famous 'I cannot understand you...what are you saying?' will never be forgotten.

Rather excited about seeing Domingo as Nabucco tonight, even though he sounds nothing like a baritone...Monastyrska sounds to have so far been as brilliant as Abigaille as I thought she would be.