Many years ago, Robert Craft wrote an eloquent essay on the subject of Giuseppe Verdi (the essay may be read in Craft’s second volume of collected essays). One of the essay’s many themes was that Verdi’s gift as a melodist developed significantly over the course of the composer’s long career.
The melodic gift, as a general rule, is given only to the young—and it disappears with age (Tchaikovsky always being the exception).
Verdi’s melodic gift, according to Craft, operated contrary to the norm: the composer was almost forty years old before the melodic gift appeared out of nowhere—and it was not until the composer had reached his late fifties that the gift ripened into full flowering.
The question of Verdi’s melodic gift, and its unusual course, unmistakably arises whenever the subject of “Nabucco”, Verdi’s third opera, is under discussion. Aside from its single famous chorus, featuring one of Verdi’s most inspired melodies, the score of “Nabucco” is formulaic and uninteresting—and of no melodic distinction whatsoever.
Early in his career, Verdi modeled his operas on the works of Donizetti (and not Bellini or Rossini). The first dozen or so Verdi operas—the startlingly-original “Macbeth” aside—are nothing more than crude expansions of Donizetti’s musical formulas. Verdi’s music has more energy and thrust than the Donizetti model, but the music materials—and the way the composer develops them—are basic if not trite. It is no surprise that the composers of Central Europe, busy digesting the miraculous music being produced in the 1840s by Mendelssohn and Schumann, viewed Verdi as a complete hack.
On Thursday evening, Joshua and I and my parents and my sister-in-law attended a performance of “Nabucco” by Minnesota Opera.
The musical presentation was clean, even excellent—orchestra and chorus were on great form—but the music of “Nabucco” is so deadly dull that there is no reason to attempt to keep the opera alive. The score of Weber’s “Der Freischütz”, written twenty years earlier, displays a thousand times more musical invention and imagination than “Nabucco”—as well as better melodies (and better choruses, too).
How can a listener endure an evening-length opera bereft of harmonic, rhythmic, melodic and orchestral interest? One listens intently, and hopes that the singers and conductor are able to produce an interesting moment now and again.
The singers in the Minnesota Opera “Nabucco” were about as good as one has a right to expect from a regional company—although the voice of the Abigaille lacked the size, color and weight necessary for what is an impossible role.
The conductor, Michael Christie, newly-installed as Music Director of Minnesota Opera, gave a focused, concentrated reading of the score. Without Christie in the pit, I think the performance would have been interminable. Christie actually convinced me that he had found some small degree of merit in “Nabucco”—quite an achievement when one stops to think about it.
Nonetheless, there are a hundred neglected operas with far greater claims for attention than “Nabucco”. Minnesota Opera should be chastised, harshly, for programming such a meritless work.
The physical production, a co-production with Washington Opera and The Opera Company Of Philadelphia, was interesting.
It attempted to recreate the aura of the opera’s 1842 premiere at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, using backdrops and scenery typical of the period. It even included onstage royal boxes for personages of importance, and made constant overt references to Austria’s then-dominance of Northern Italy. Such references, naturally, were designed to parallel the ancient story of oppression told in the opera itself—and quickly became heavy-handed and tiresome.
I would not call the production subtle or sophisticated—the opera itself being neither subtle nor sophisticated, it hardly cries out for a subtle and sophisticated production—but at least the production was colorful (if not exactly handsome). I have seen far worse productions, in the Twin Cities and elsewhere.
At the curtain calls, the chorus reprised “Va, pensiero”.
If “Nabucco” had been an important work of art, I would have been offended.