Elijah Moshinsky’s 15-year old production of Verdi’s Nabucco has returned to the Met, ostensibly as a vehicle for Plácido Domingo, who has taken on baritone roles in the last few years. The production plays the opera directly – no “Regie” effects – just a straightforward staging filled with gigantic sets, plenty of melodrama and hand-to-heart, hand-to forehead performances. John Napier has designed a tiered set that rotates; one side shows us a shiny black Babylon in the form of a tower familiar to those who visit the ancient Babylonian sections of their local museums, and on the other side is Jerusalem, made of huge blocks of granite. The backdrop is black. There are staircases everywhere and the singers amble up and down while singing and making points.

<i>Nabucco</i> at The Met © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Nabucco at The Met
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

This opera, Verdi’s third, was his first enormous success; indeed it made him famous and loved – the latter due to the chorus of enslaved Hebrews, “Va, pensiero”, which acted as a not so subtle metaphor for the Italians who despised being under the thumb of Austria in 1842. To this day, that chorus acts as an unofficial national anthem in Italy. The opera’s style is part throwback to the more sophisticated bel canto operas (still being composed, mostly by Donizetti, at the time) with vocal showpieces and set “numbers,” and the more exclamatory moments that Verdi would later perfect, revolutionizing Italian opera. The vocal displays, mostly for Abigaille, are spectacular, and if the drama can be somewhat crude and lacking nuance and the music still retains a certain “oom-pah-pah” quality, well, it’s still vastly entertaining and there are enough moments of gripping drama and stunning music.

Plácido Domingo (Nabucco) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Plácido Domingo (Nabucco)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Either Mr Domingo, in the title role, was having a particularly bad night, or he is near the end of the road. To be sure, he is not a true baritone; the voice is the wrong color and its weight is/was in the wrong places. But on this occasion he was short of breath and dim of volume throughout, and cracked on a couple of notes in mid-voice. The sound was absolutely flat. He acted up what should have been a storm as the overthrown ruler who converts from paganism, but he seemed to be thrashing.

The even more central role is that of Abigaille, who is believed to be Nabucco’s half daughter but is, in actuality, a slave girl. And an angry, wicked, thirsty one she is. The role is as weirdly challenging as Lady Macbeth, with two-octave leaps, coloratura, and many fortissimo high notes, as well as a tender, winsome side that must be expressed through quiet, legato singing. Soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska is an odd singer – much of the voice is spectacularly secure: the top octave is staggering in its accuracy and volume, with high Bs and Cs hurled out volcanically. Elsewhere, clouds enter the sound and the lunges into chest voice, while welcome, are disconnected. But she can sing sweetly, and the coloratura is odd enough as written so that it’s hard to tell if she’s fudging some of it. Her acting is silent screen, but the character calls for it. And she looks fine in her iridescent green, gold-plated gown.

Liudmyla Monastyrska (Abigaille) and Plácido Domingo (Nabucco) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Liudmyla Monastyrska (Abigaille) and Plácido Domingo (Nabucco)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

The Hebrew High Priest, Zaccaria, has many awe-inspiring pronouncements to make, and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy, minus the very lowest notes, struck just the right chord. The too-small roles of Fenena, Nabucco’s daughter, and her boyfriend Ismaele were cast from remarkable strength, with Jamie Barton as the former, particularly lovely in her final act cavatina, and Russell Thomas lending a strong tenor to the latter. Sava Vemic impressed in his debut as the High Priest of Baal.

James Levine was in the pit, conducting like a man half his age. He stirred the brilliant Met Orchestra into frenzies, led a tender “Va, pensiero” which was encored (Donald Palumbo’s chorus again wins the prize), and was considerate of the singers.