Monday 1 April 2013
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.