As the Netherlands gears up for Easter, the country is struck with the Bach-fever. There are several hundred performances of the Passions – Matthew’s mainly although John’s has gained popularity over the years – scheduled throughout the country in concert halls and churches. In the Concertgebouw’s main hall, there were no less than six performances in the past week alone. This doesn’t leave many time slots for other works and it was the public radio’s NTR Saturday Matinee that provided some programming diversity with perhaps the most contrasting of works: Verdi’s early opera, Nabucco. We’ll never know whether this quirky choice in programming was intentional or simply a lucky alignment of all the participants’ agendas. However, left in the firm hands of conductor Giancarlo Andretta, it proved a master stroke. The Italian maestro led the orchestra, choir and a fine cast into a performance that was often nothing short of exhilarating.

Tatiana Serjan © Tod Rosberg
Tatiana Serjan
© Tod Rosberg

Composed when Verdi was still in his twenties, Nabucco oozes testosterone-fuelled energy. It isn’t the most subtle of music, but it is packed with brilliant melodies that make one want to sing along and, performed as it was on this Saturday matinée, it becomes quite simply irresistible. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, some of its musicians at times left to play off-stage from behind a door to emulate the Assyrian arm’s banda, sounded inspired. All the boisterous energy of the young Verdi’s score came through, but so did its many endearing details, starting at the very beginning with the winds bobbing their heads during the overture. More intimate scenes were done with tender concentration and there was a moving pathos in the cello sextet accompanying Zaccaria’s prayer. The Netherlands Radio Choir, rehearsed by Klaas-Jan de Groot, must have channelled some Italian god on this occasion. They sounded superb. The chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, undoubtedly the most famous tune in the opera, was the arresting highlight it ought to be. The (many) other choruses were just as well executed which is telling of the overall level of the performance.

This fine performance was further completed by a carefully chosen team of soloists with no weak link. From the smaller roles, the resonant Gran Sacerdote of Jasper Leever particularly stood out. Dutch mezzo-soprano Iris van Wijnen displayed a lovely youthful timbre and innate musicality as the Assyrian princess Fenena. Giordano Lucà’s sun-drenched tenor had the perfect Italianate ping for Ismaele. Canadian bass John Relyea, as the High Rabbi Zaccaria, had a slightly uncertain start, his voice thinning at the top during his first cabaletta, but he quickly warmed up and by Zaccaria’s prayer, his noble timbre unveiled a rich palette of cavernous colours. Franco Vassallo’s handsome baritone made for a particularly threatening, booming Nabucco at first, to later reveal its impressing ability to portray the multi-faceted character’s descent into madness followed by his repentance.

As Abigaille, this fiendishly difficult role in which it is said that Giuseppina Strepponi, who was later to become Verdi's second wife, lost her voice, Tatiana Serjan gave a performance that left the audience stunned. It is easy to understand why the Russian soprano has become one of the most sought-after interpreters of the dramatic soprano d’agilità repertoire in Europe. She must have been born to sing Abigaille. Her voice is large and well-projected, yet can scale down to a beautiful pianissimo in “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno”. Her dark crimson medium darts with baffling ease into steal-laced top notes with baffling ease, or plunges into a menacing ink-black chest register. Her voice allied to her strong stage presence made for a truly unforgettable performance.

*****