Maria Guleghina walked to the front of the stage, blew kisses to the crowd over and over and kept tapping her right hand against her heart. A diva curtain call from the golden age.
The Ukrainian soprano returned to the Metropolitan Opera's production of Verdi's "Nabucco" as Abigaille on Tuesday night, a famously difficult role she sang when the staging debuted a decade ago. With penetrating, thrilling high notes, she dominated the entertaining revival and was rewarded with a standing ovation.
Most famous for "Va, pensiero," the chorus of Hebrew slaves, "Nabucco" was Verdi's third opera and his first hit, with a propulsive overture and tuneful music. Temistocle Solera's libretto tells the biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who conquered the Hebrews and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem.
Declaring himself both king and god, he goes insane and Abigaille, who is thought to be his oldest daughter, take power, By the end of the night, Nabucco regains his faculties and his throne, and Abigaille commits suicide _ but before dying urges Fenena (Nabucco's actual daughter) be reunited with Ismaele, the nephew of the king of Jerusalem. Earlier, Abigaille had sentenced Fenena to death.
More than enough drama to go around.
Whether standing near the top of John Napier's massive, rotating set in regal robes or running about like a warrior, Guleghina was commanding in a role sung at the La Scala premiere in 1842 by Giuseppina Strepponi, who later became Verdi's second wife. This was a woman who loved power in a male-dominated society. If the pitch on some notes was uncertain, it was compensated by her ferocious intensity.
Baritone Zeljko Lucic was every bit her match in the title role, with mellifluous, dark singing in the duets and a pained regal bearing. Yonghoon Lee, who made his Met debut last season when he took over from Roberto Alagna in the title role during the run of Verdi's "Don Carlo," was a winning Ismaele, displaying both a bright tenor and charm that also earned him big applause. Renee Tatum (Fenena), an up-and-coming singer in the Met development program, is a sweet-sounding mezzo-soprano with promise.
Most problematic was bass Carlo Colombara as Zaccaria, the high priest of the Hebrews who persuades Nabucco to accept God. When the production was new, Samuel Ramey lent the part a great deal of gravitas. Colombara struggled through "D'Egitto la sui lidi (There upon the shores of Egypt)," barely able to be heard over the orchestra in his upper register and sounding gruff in his low notes. He improved as the night went on, though.
Also disappointing was conductor Paolo Carignani, who fell short of the standard set by James Levine during both the original run and revivals in 2003 and 2005. There was no arc, leaving the scenes somewhat disjointed. Unlike Levine, he did not conduct an encore of "Va, pensiero."
The Elijah Moshinsky production has a single set by Napier (of "Cats" fame) that represents Israel on one side and Babylon on the other.
There are 11 more performances through Nov. 17, with some different singers rotating in during November.