NEW YORK -- Imagine your most ardent hopes flying off on golden wings. That's the dream image of about 100 Hebrew slaves in Verdi's "Nabucco," voicing a yearning to be freed from their warring Assyrian captors and return to Israel.
On Monday night at the Metropolitan Opera, one of the world's finest theater choruses electrified this season premiere of a work famed for this slave song, "Va pensiero, sull' ali dorate...," Italian for "Go thoughts, on golden wings ..."
After the 1842 premiere of "Nabucco," "Va pensiero" became the unofficial anthem of embattled Italian patriots trying to unify their feuding land; Verdi was their beloved musical leader. When the composer died in January 1901, the chorus was sung by tens of thousands of ordinary Italians braving the chill to walk behind his casket through the streets of Milan.
This chorus, in essence, is the first "aria" for a large vocal ensemble in Italian opera. And when the singing is as excellent as the Met's, the choristers form passionate musical pillars that frame the individual soloists' personal outbursts.
"In 'Va pensiero,' the chorus has a huge dynamic range, from the softest to the loudest, starting with a whisper and a sigh, and ending with a whisper and a sigh," Met chorus master Raymond Hughes said after the premiere. "Every chorus that's good can get the big stuff, but it's the soft part that needs the most intensity and vocal support."
Dramatically, the group of men and women filling the stage are a kind of "Greek chorus" - a conscience that leavens the principal characters' emotions, from love and hate to revenge, arrogance and defeat.
On Monday, the standout new voice was that of mezzo-soprano Marina Domashenko as Fenena, the captured daughter of the Hebrews' archenemy, the Assyrian King Nabucco.
Domashenko, a native of Siberia, painted Fenena's notes with a thrilling, creamy voice, though some might be less drawn to her dark, typically "Russian" tone.
Fenena is in love with Ismaele, the nephew of the enemy Hebrew King Zaccaria - also loved by Nabucco's other daughter, Abigaille.
As Abigaille, a wrath-filled woman Ismaele rejects, soprano Andrea Gruber returned to the Met in a role she has made her own, at ease with Verdi's two-octave leaps - from high C to low B.
The Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones lent his strong, ringing voice to the part of Ismaele.
The refined artistry of veteran bass Samuel Ramey, as Zaccaria, unfortunately rests these days on a diminished voice that tends to wobble uncontrollably.
But his older colleague, Leo Nucci, delivered a Nabucco that exceeded expectations from this baritone who in recent years wasn't always up to par. He outdid himself Monday, singing richly in his native Italian - a man cut down by God only to discover his spiritual heights.
Nabucco was Verdi's first success after he was ready to abandon composing following the deaths of his wife and two children, plus an earlier opera that flopped.
Somehow, just shy of his 30th birthday and while running a farm in northern Italy, he wrote the soaring music of this, his third opera, which propelled him into masterpieces like "La Traviata" and "Otello."
On Monday, conductor Carlo Rizzi added an extra touch of class to the Met's "Nabucco," skipping the repeat of "Va pensiero" that has become all but "de rigueur" after an audience's habitual ovation.
Rizzi moved the music forward at a lively clip, ending the performance a quarter of an hour earlier than scheduled - after almost three hours of Verdi's sensuous, catchy melodies.
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