Placido Domingo Heads to Ancient Babylon Sunday in Verdi’s epic Nabucco on Great Performances at the Met
By: Ellis Nassour
Great Performances at the Met continues its 11th Season this Sunday at 12:30 P.M. on PBS/THIRTEEN as Plácido Domingo, in one of his most emotional and vocally difficult portrayals, brings another baritone role to the Metropolitan stage as Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in a lavish production of Verdi’s early/1842 four-act epic: Nabucco.
The Italian libretto, with its political and romantic plots, by Temitocle Solera is based on biblical stories from the Books of Jeremiah and Daniel, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and Psalms. and a play by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis Cornue. The first part takes place in 586 B.C., against a backdrop of the destruction of Jerusalem’s first temple and the plight of the Hebrews assaulted, conquered, and exiled from their homeland by Nebuchadnezzar [the original title]. The rest is set in the hanging gardens of Babylon.
Nabucco opens as the Israelites pray as the Babylonian army advances on their city (“Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”: Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate / “Fly, thought, on golden wings”). High Priest Zaccaria tells the people not to despair, but to put their trust in God (D’Egitto là su i lidi / “On the shores of Egypt He saved the life of Moses”). He has a bit of a wedge to secure peace: the king’s younger daughter Fenena has been taken hostage. Zaccaria entrusts Fenena to Ismaele, the nephew of the King of Jerusalem and a former envoy to Babylon.
They renew the affair began when he was a Babylonian prisioner and she aided in his escape. Not at all happy about this is the king’s older daughter, marauding, ruthless soldier Abigaille, who’s also in love with him. Things become ferocious when she discovers she’s not the daughter of the king but of slaves. She has a beautiful aria (Anch’io dischiuso un giorno / “I too once opened my heart to happiness”) where she recalls past happiness. She’s determined by hell or high water to rule (Salgo già del trono aurato / “I already ascend the [bloodstained] seat of the golden throne”) – a goal she ascends to in Act Two.
When the opera was first performed at La Scala, the composer, then 28, considered it his “lucky star.” He wrote: “This is where my artistic career really begins.” It not only revived his career after the failure of his second opera, a comic romp, but also gave him new hope after the death of his wife and two children.
Celebrated (Macbeth, Aida) Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska sings the role of Abigaille. Star-crossed lovers Fenena and Ismaele are played by mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and internationally-acclaimed tenor Russell Thomas. Power bass Dmitri Belosselskiy eats all the scenery that’s not tied down as Zaccaria. One of the largest ensembles ever fills the massive Met stage.
Conducting is music director emeritus James Levine. The production is close-captioned for TV.
Verdi’s career spanned six decades and 28 finished operas. His role in Italy’s cultural and political development made him an icon; his amazing output, one of classical music’s most beloved composers.
Costumes are by Andreane Neofitou, with sets by Tony winner and Olivier nominee John Napier (Cats, Les Miz, Sunset Boulevard, … Nicholas Nickleby). Barbara Willis Sweete directed the telecast, with David Frost as music producer. Bass-baritone Eric Owens hosts the broadcast.
Corporate support for Great Performances at the Met is provided by Toll Brothers, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Irene Diamond Fund, the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Arts Fund, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, The Agnes Varis Trust, and public TV viewers.
Upcoming on Great Performances at the Met: Dvořák’s Rusalka, June 18; Mozart’s Idomeneo, July 16; Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, August 1; Verdi’s La Traviata, August 25; and Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, September 3.