On the last Saturday in February, I turned on the radio — turned to WETA — and heard opera from the MET. Italian Opera, as became clear within short, painful seconds. Not just any Italian opera, either. No, this was "grand" and "dramatic" Italian opera, and apparently one that set out to reaffirm every single bad stereotype about that kind of opera. Indeed, even though I suspected Verdi behind this criminal act of pretentious, ill-inspired cacophony, it sounded much more as though a malignant hater of opera had set out to compose a devilishly subtle caricature of that particular operatic type. Thinking about it that way (because I kept listening with masochistic delight) brought me close to moments where I did not know whether tears of laughter or pain were more (in)appropriate.
And what exactly was wrong with it? What made it so excruciatingly bad? Shall I mention the perfectly empty orchestral writing—a collage of one cheap effect after another, the endless galloping runs up to some aria or end of an aria that you can see coming from a mile away, always with the same basic figures—either up the scale, sometimes down, sometimes up and down for extra excitement!? They, of course, last twice as long as even the most forgiving ears could tolerate. Then the big musical cues and signs: Here! Clap. Here! The end of this part. (I wish it had been the end, but it was merely the end of Act I of Nabucco.)
The pointless, self-serving high notes, held forever: vocal fireworks that serve no musical purpose and are only introduced to show off some singer and his or her vocal (dis)ability. The whole thing was sickening. To think that Act II would be better than these ridiculous vocal passages was quickly shot down by a squealing soprano who pierced my good mood at unnecessary heights and decibels. It's the equivalent of a Monster Truck race: nothing that has use in reality, only the aesthetic of big size and the ability to crush little things. Looking for subtlety--nay: beauty--here is pointless. The very few lyrical passages (like the gorgeous string quintet [?] leading to Nabucco's aria in Act II) that could be considered pretty are ruined by the labored vocal approach and melodic ornamentation that ruins the musical line. And then, sooner or later, come those high squeals, anyway, courtesy of Abigaille. Bravos and applause invariably follow from an audience that has been duped into appreciating this junk over at least 100 years.
Men belch out at superdramatic volumes (nothing ever sounds natural), and mezzos sound nothing short of ridiculous, their voices denatured by the attempt to imbue the music with highbrow seriousness and high volume. It ends up sounding like constipation of the throat, and the result, to these ears, is something that fits right into that analogy. Exposed singing through several keys ends up being woefully out of tune, half of the time. Does anyone really like that stuff?
Nabucco is such a terrifyingly bad opera, you can actually see the bad acting, even on the radio. Meaningless, overly dramatic limb extensions, swelled chests carried high, and with that frown on their faces. Haughty women with their eyebrows pulled all the way back to their hairline and that interminable look of transfiguration. How that can come from the pen of the man who wrote Falstaff, Otello, Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlos, and (I feel generous today) even Rigoletto?
Suggestions on how to overcome this aversion—or how to aesthetically justify it so that I cannot be accused of musical ignorance—are most welcome.
I wrote a post on the last Met broadcast of Nabucco, back on April 20, 2004, in which I expressed many of the same reservations about the musical qualities of the opera. I freely admit that there are grotesque weaknesses, but I still like many parts of it.—CTD
See the hilarious review of reviews of Nabucco at Sieglinde's Diaries.—CTD