Received wisdom says “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings”. In the case of a Leo Nucci recital, it ain’t over till the Italian baritone’s sung “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata”. Nucci has chalked up over 500 performances as Rigoletto, so we can safely describe it as a signature role. Therefore it was no surprise that the jester’s great aria closed this Rosenblatt Recital as his fifth – yes, fifth – encore. Nucci is a wily old fox and by this stage, he had the Cadogan Hall audience eating out of his hand.

Leo Nucci © Jonathan Rose
Leo Nucci
© Jonathan Rose
What is remarkable is that, at 73 years old – in  an era when many young voices burn out – Nucci’s voice shows little sign of deterioration. His baritone is rather dry and hollow, but then it was never the most refulgent of instruments, especially following in the footsteps of such velvety Italian baritones as Piero Cappuccilli and Renato Bruson. Verdi constituted a good part of Nucci’s recital programme, with arias from roles he’s closely associated with on many of the world’s great operatic stages. Just because you’re a baritone and you sing Verdi, that doesn’t make you a Verdi baritone. It’s about having authority, the right weight of voice and the ability to thrill in the upper register. Nucci has been the reigning Italian baritone for decades now. He still has an innate sense of line and he is able to weight phrases beautifully right across their span, even if he is now sometimes short-breathed.

Macbeth’s “Mal per me”, the rarely performed 1847 death scene, was dramatically declaimed, while he inhabited the role of Francesco Foscari, injecting recitative with meaning and then deploying his gnarly baritone for the aria “O vecchio cor” as the Doge despairs that he is unable to save his exiled son. Montforte’s “In braccio alle dovizie” from I vespri siciliani was taken at a brisk tempo (to accommodate its long phrases?) but Nucci’s characterisation bristled with presence.

The bel canto selections on the programme were less successful, possibly as they’re not Nucci’s standard repertoire – certainly not as familiar as his Verdi roles. Eyes closed, he negotiated several arias without too much mishap. Leaps into the upper register weren’t always comfortably negotiated, with a forced, hectoring quality to the end of Alfonso’s scene from La favorita. Smudged ornamentation occasionally marred his “Per sempre io te perdei” from I puritani, but he ended very strongly.

Leo Nucci © Jonathan Rose
Leo Nucci
© Jonathan Rose

Nucci was accompanied by the Italian Chamber Ensemble, consisting of piano, string quartet and harp, playing dutiful arrangements which maintained more of the colour of the original accompaniments than is the case in voice and piano recitals of operatic fare. A couple of note-spinning soprano aria medleys, arranged for the ensemble by pianist Paolo Marcarini, allowed Nucci a short break in each half… not that he appeared to require it.

After the conclusion of the advertised programme, Nucci embarked on a “greatest baritone hits” series of encores. The voice sounded as fresh as it had done all evening as we were introduced to Rossini’s Figaro, all glinting smile and dapper patter. Posa’s death scene, Renato’s vengeful declaration, and Rigoletto’s fury followed… but not before Nucci had cajoled the audience into joining in the refrain of Non ti scordar mai di me (Don’t forget me). With such a charming plea, resistance was futile.

****1