Nabucco in Novi Sad

Mercifully not. The straightforward reliable staging by Dejan Miladinovi?
and effective costume designs by Jasna Petrovi? Badjarevi? were neither
intrusive nor distracting. Despite having been first seen as long ago as 1983
when the opera was sung in Serbian, the production looked surprisingly fresh
and functional.

A particularly pleasing production idea was during the Act III duet between
Nabucco and Abigaille when the demonic anti-heroine destroys evidence of her
low birth (Il foglio menzogner!). Instead of tearing up the
incriminating document as indicated in the libretto, she smashes a clay tablet
which is both historically much more accurate as paper didn’t exist in
6th century BC Babylon. This made a wonderful dramatic impact as the
pieces shattered all over the stage. Another visual success was the enormous 5
metre long regal mantle Abigaille wears to ascend the throne which covered the
entire flight of steps.

Due to earlier cuts (since restored) the opera was performed in three acts
instead of the libretto’s stipulated four with Act II extending to the end of
the Deh perdona, deh perdona duet between Abigaille and Nabucco. This
meant that instead of the Va pensiero chorus almost ending Act III, it
opened the last act of this three part version straight after the interval,
which was dramatically much less effective.

Not just because of the justifiably celebrated Va pensiero chorus,
Nabucco is an opera where the coro plays a major dramatic and
musical role and in this regard the Novi Sad singers certainly didn’t
disappoint. An impressive chorus of roughly 70 singers paid commendable
attention to Verdi’s dynamics and markings. As with many large ensembles,
there were one or two glitches in the presto concertante sections,
especially the spirited Come notte a sol fulgente chorus with Zaccaria
in Act I, Oh fuggite il maledetto that closes the ‘Jerusalem’ part
of the opera and S’appressan gl’istanti d’un’ira fatale in Act II. The
slower ensembles usually had better synchronization with the orchestra,
especially Non far che i tuoi figli divengano preda at the end of the
opening scena.

The famous Va pensiero chorus lost a lot of its customary impact
due to the fact that the very young conductor Aleksandar Koji? (aged 30) chose
a much more brisk tempo than one is accustomed to hearing. After all, it is
marked largo in the partitura. The desperate longing for a
patria perduta expressed so plaintively in the text and score was
sadly missing. This was a supersonic Concorde flight on golden wings. Che

Such haste was even more curious as Koji?’s tempi for the rest
of the performance were generally uncontroversial. Although coordination
between pit and stage was occasionally a little fraught, this was by no means a
shabby performance on the podium. String playing was generally acceptable,
especially the cantabile cello introduction to Zaccaria’s recitative and
Prigheria Vieni, o Levita! in Act II. There was some nice solo flute
playing before Abigaille’s Anch’io dischiuso un giorno aria in Act
II and again in Nabucco’s Dio di Giuda aria in Act IV. Less
successful was the syncopated quaver horn punctuation in Va pensiero
which was unduly heavy and had slight intonation problems.

Intonation problems would be a kind understatement to describe the
performance of the Abigaille Valentina Milenkovi?. Having had some kind of
vocal crisis a few years ago, Madame Milenkovi? essentially retired from the
operatic stage and only sang an occasional Lisa in Pique Dame and
Leonora in Il Trovatore but for some inexplicable reason chose to make
her most recent comeback in one of the most diabolical roles Verdi ever
inflicted on a soprano.

There was no coloratura, no mezzavoce, no chest notes, no
lower register, no breath control, no phrasing, no piano technique –
just an indescribably awful shriek at the very top of the range. The only
identifiable aspect of her voice was a vibrato so wide the miserable Hebrews
could have walked through it to freedom. Every ensemble was marred by her
appalling screeching. In the Act II opening scena Anch’io
dischiuso un giorno
there was just a horrible whining, rasping noise.
Diction and phrasing were a total blur. One wished the flute obbligato had
continued without the vocal part.

But much worse was to come. The great cabaletta Salgo gi‡ del trono
was something that would have made Florence Foster Jenkins sound
like Joan Sutherland. The fioratura was mush, the scale passages a
murky blur, intonation seemed to cover about 3 semitones at once, the wide
vibrato and wobble were totally out of control and mid-register notes
inaudible. The top C at l’umil schiava a supplicar had your suffering
reviewer groping for the earplugs. Perhaps Madame Milenkovi? should consider
La Duchesse du Crakentorp in La Fille du Regiment as her next comeback

The demanding and dramatically vital role of Zaccaria was sung by the
Serbian bass Goran Krneta bravely trying to cope with a ridiculous Santa Claus
beard. Despite having solid low notes, good projection and a dependable middle
voice, his upper register needs a lot of work. Under any kind of pressure it
tightened badly and made a rather unpleasant pinched sound. Intonation problems
were noticeable in the Act IV ‡ capella scena with chorus and
Immenso Jeovha chi non ti sente was noticeably below pitch.
Regrettably for the drama, Zaccaria’s important confrontations with Nabucco
had little anthemic impact or emotive power. Oh trema insano! Questa Ë di
Dio la stanza!
at the end of Act I was particularly lame.

The role of Ismaele was sung by another young Serbian singer, Nenad ?i?a.
Certainly it is not the greatest role Verdi ever created for tenor, although
its vocal importance in the ensembles is significant. Mr ?i?a was clearly
very nervous throughout and as a result, his voice often became badly
constricted, especially in the upper register. Acting was definitely not his
strong point either. His reaction to the fury of the Levites in Act II when he
is ostracized for protecting Fenene from Zaccaria’s intended slaughter
(Il maledetto non ha fratelli) was about as bland as if he had
misplaced his breakfast bagel.

The object of Ismaele’s passion and obstinence, Fenene, was sung by a
mature Serbian mezzo Violeta Sre?kovi?. She had a reasonable
mezzovoce but nothing remarkable. Her important but musically
underwhelming scena in Act IV (Oh dischiuso Ë il firmamento)
was acceptable in the middle range but like Goran Krneta, very tight in
the upper register. The High Priest of Baal sung by young Serbian bass éeljko
Andri? was a bit hooty in projection but vocally and dramatically reasonably
effective. His scena Eccelsa donna, che d’Assiria il fato Reggi, le preci
in Act III was more than satisfactory. The lesser roles of Anna
(an older well-focused singer called Laura Pavlovi?) and Abdallo (Igor
Ksionûik) were competently sung by the former and forgettably managed by the
latter. It was more a case of small role, small voice. Basta.

The performer with anything but a small voice was the Nabucco of Dragutin
Mati?. Still only 33 years old, he first studied in Belgrade then in W¸rzburg
Germany under the celebrated soprano Cheryl Studer. The grueling tessitura
of the role is in many ways similar to that of Abigaille in that the
demands Verdi places on this new kind of ‘high baritone’ are formidable in
the extreme. Dragutin Mati? has the robust masculine vocal colour of Matteo
Manuguerra, the warm rounded mezzovoce tones of Piero Cappuccilli and
the ringing top register of Renato Bruson. It was not surprising to learn he
started his singing career as a tenor. There was real power in S’oda or me!
without losing any intonation or musicality and the explosive
line non son pi˘ re, son Dio!! was delivered with terrifying force
and menace. Nabucco’s prayer to the God of the Hebrews to save Fenene
(Dio di Giuda! l’ara e il tempio) and following cabaletta O prodi
miei, seguitemi
concluding with Di mia corona al sol in Act IV
were unquestionably the musical highlights of the evening.

At the curtain calls Mati? was loudly applauded by the audience which
numbered only a handful of people. In fact the whole performance felt more like
a closed Sitzprobe. Apparently the explanation for the extremely low
attendance (despite seat prices ranging from Ä3 to Ä6.5) is that the
production has been in the repertoire for over 30 years and locals are not
particularly interested in seeing it again. Certainly once word got out that
Valentina Milenkovi? was appearing to crucify the role of Abigaille, only
musical masochists or those expecting to experience a Balkan version of
Florence Foster Jenkins were prepared to endure such a bizarre night at the
opera. The Marx Brothers would have loved it — Verdi less so.

Jonathan Sutherland

image_description=A scene from Nabucco [Photo courtesy of Serbian National Theatre, Novi Sad]
product_title=Nabucco in Novi Sad
product_by=A review by Jonathan Sutherland
product_id=Above: A scene from Nabucco [Photo courtesy of Serbian National Theatre, Novi Sad]