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Back-to-Back Verdi Evenings Showcase the Met Opera Chorus

Back-to-Back Verdi Evenings Showcase the Met Opera Chorus
  • PublishedSeptember 29, 2023

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This week, the Metropolitan Opera featured one of its most reliable stars in back-to-back shows: its chorus.

It just so happens that those performances were both of works by Verdi — the Requiem on Wednesday, and “Nabucco” on Thursday — whose bold, catchy, intensely emotive choruses are nearly a genre unto themselves.

Each piece turns over large swaths of music and its most dramatic moments to the chorus. And the Met’s delivered: Singing with strength and clarity, the ensemble filled the company’s imposing hall without sacrificing the smooth texture and depth of its sound. It was all a reminder of what Donald Palumbo, the chorus master since 2006, has accomplished with these singers, and of the standard he will leave behind when he steps down at the end of the season.

“Nabucco” and the Requiem were written more than three decades apart, both in the shadow of death. After the failure of his second opera, “Un Giorno di Regno,” and the loss of his first wife and children, Verdi decided to compose again when he read the “Nabucco” libretto. It’s hard not to hear the title king’s vulnerable plea for his daughter’s life (sung nobly on Wednesday by George Gagnidze) and think of what might have inspired it. And when the Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni, whom Verdi called “the greatest of our glories,” died, the composer couldn’t bring himself to attend the funeral, but he set about composing the Requiem for the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death.

There’s no doubt that the Requiem is the superior piece, a mature masterpiece of startling potency and harrowing beauty. But there are similarities: religious material that engages the soloists in desperate prayer; the use of a cappella writing in moments of humility; choruses that find a sense of peace in unison singing; full-blown orchestral climaxes that throw into relief the fragility of chamber-style passages.

In both “Nabucco” and the Requiem, the Met chorus’s most ravishing moments came in those unison passages, which present deceptive difficulties for blend and synchronicity in the hall’s sensitive acoustic. In the famous “Va, pensiero” from “Nabucco,” the choristers, bathed in pale gold light, sang with a pure, swelling sound and finished with a beautiful diminuendo and a long, captivating final note. Their awed sound brought the Requiem’s “Agnus Dei” to touching life.

The mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and the soprano Leah Hawkins, soloists in the Requiem, admirably held together their own exposed singing in the “Agnus Dei,” but the four featured singers’ extended praises and supplications sometimes defaulted to generalities. One exception was the “Recordare” duet, in which Cargill and Hawkins closely collaborated as musical partners while offering distinct interpretations: Cargill, pitiful, prayerful, humbled; Hawkins, persuasive in recounting the beauty of Jesus’ sacrifice.

Hawkins rose to the occasion of the work’s final set piece, “Libera me,” with lovely focus and a splendid high B flat. The tenor Matthew Polenzani alternated powerful declarations with his career-defining soft singing, which sometimes petered out prematurely. Dmitry Belosselskiy, his tone brawny and occasionally hoarse, turned philosophical in his bass solos.

The “Dies irae” — an ideal section for the conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s more-is-more interpretive style — shook the chandeliers with cataclysmic volume and thrilling momentum in its depiction of the Day of Judgment. Credit, too, to the percussionist Gregory Zuber, who walloped his bass drum with such fantastic force that he was momentarily airborne. Small moments shone too, from the translucent cello tone in the “Offertorium” and the gentle divided flutes in the “Agnus Dei” to the pure hope of the solo oboe, Elaine Douvas, in the “Ingemisco.”

Elijah Moshinsky’s “Nabucco” production has an old-school, 1980s throwback charm, with its imposing, multiuse unit set that turns on the Met’s revolving stage, even though it arrived at the company in 2001. It harks back to a time when singers were almost solely responsible for delivering the drama, and that’s what Gagnidze did: He shaped Nabucco’s full character arc with his baritone, from the sheeny resonance and dripping venom of a boastful king to the long, stately lines of a penitent one.

Liudmyla Monastyrska, in the voice-wrecker of a soprano role that is Abigaille, mined quiet moments for subtle flair and bravely threw herself into the endless parade of splashy high notes, energetic runs and wide leaps that caused her tone to start coming apart at the seams. Belosselskiy, who returned as Zaccaria in “Nabucco,” sang attractively in “Vieni, o Levita.” SeokJong Baek, in his Met debut, had ardor to spare as Ismaele, and the mezzo-soprano Maria Barakova sang Fenena with vibrancy.

The conductor Daniele Callegari brought richness, panache and stylistic cogency to “Nabucco,” showing what’s possible when a maestro approaches this early score with integrity. His passion and concentration showed in the way he mouthed the words for the soloists when they started to fall behind in the Act I finale.

Then the chorus entered in tempo, their tone agile yet full, and the piece fell into place.

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