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Divide et Impera: Abigaille & Nabucco

Updated: Apr 24, 2022

Beyond mere stratagem is the duet in which Abigaille cozens her assumed father Nabucco into agreeing to execute the Israelite populace, including its latest convert Fenena, Nabucco's blood daughter. It becomes a revelation of these two warriors' psychological battle scars: Nabucco formerly king now captive pleading for the life of the daughter whose fate he has fecklessly sealed, and Abigaille whose power can punish those disloyal to her but can never command the affection they have denied her.

1983/10/22 Met Centennial Gala

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

c. Thomas Fulton

Nabucco: Renato Bruson

Abigaille: Grace Bumbry

Much of this performance's success is due to Thomas Fulton's battuta: he has the Met orchestra well in hand, the allegro episodes rhythmically alert yet with room for the singers to articulate and react, and peak phrases expanded in stylish fashion, allowing the music and the voices time to blossom.

Grace Bumbry's «Suicidio!» recording from this same year was mentioned in a previous posting. The early '80s were a heady period for her, with both of Lincoln Center's opera companies presenting her as primadonna soprano: two autumns prior to this performance, Bumbry made her City Opera debut as Abigaille! The current excerpt amply displays her wonted boldness of tone, the trademark bronze note di petto matched by glittering top tones, yet even in the thorniest passages, her composure of face and body remain untroubled.

Bumbry's success in this piece is undermined by bluntness of musical, vocal, and verbal approaches. Many of Abigaille's phrases start and finish at opposite ends of the voice, yet without a sense of energy leading through those musical landmarks, the phrases will sound uneven because the intervening notes are not being given equal vocal importance. For example, the two final iterations of «alfine cadranno i popoli di vile schiava al piè» [at last the people shall fall to the feet of a wretched slavegirl] coil in serpentine fashion up to high B-flat both times, coming to final rest on the D-flat right above middle C: Bumbry's range extremes stand out but she gives the intervening pitches lesser, and insufficient, vocal wattage. She gutsily hurtles tone through the numerous muscular coloratura passages but in the process sacrifices pitch accuracy, vocal balance (awkward register shifts leap out), and phrasing structure (breaths in odd places, including in the middle of words).

And for all the bold sound, Bumbry is textually complacent, failing to highlight Abigaille's many cutthroat statements towards Nabucco in favor of an all-purpose attitude of generalized temperament.

By contrast, Renato Bruson begins and ends his performance fully within the world of the opera, sincerely meaning everything Nabucco says and registering the information Abigaille shares with him—note the nuances of increasing vulnerability he finds vocally and physically through his three utterances of «Prigionier!» [the moment when Nabucco realizes that he is Abigaille's prisoner]. Vocally this is prime Bruson: solid-toned all over his range, dictation-true of text, calm-breathed, and pouring noble balm in his cantabili «Oh! di qual'onta aggravasi» and «Deh perdona, deh perdona ad un padre che delira!»

As a team, Bumbry and Bruson offer grand-scale performing without grandstanding, yet Bruson's concentrated energy within the music and language are a different stylistic level: his is a lordly performance, il porgere signorile.

2013/10 Teatro Comunale, Bologna

Orchestra del Teatro Comunale

c. Michele Mariotti

Nabucco: Vladimir Stoyanov

Abigaille: Anna Pirozzi

At three decades' remove from the prior performance, we are in a different context of style and taste. Michele Mariotti guides the piece and performers in a stile odierno pulito, a clean contemporary style: tempi straightforward, the dance-like elements of the first section (marked allegro vivo) brought out, rubato not applied to initial statements of material but reserved for their reiterations, cantabili insufficiently enhanced by voice-flattering rhythmic expansiveness.

The protagonists, equally authorative vocally and theatrically, create an intriguing ice-and-fire friction. Praised in an earlier post for her recent Butterfly concert excerpt, Anna Pirozzi dominates Abigaille's flamboyant writing with that seemingly effortless nonchalance known as sprezzatura. She is a serious artist, in such command of her breath reflexes as to securely fulfill the music's conflicting demands for agility, thrust, and expansion at every point of the vocal range, and never making an ugly sound in a misguided pursuit of dramatic intensity: she does not exaggerate.

L'ombra del re, the shadow of the king, is Vladimir Stoyanov, a Bulgarian baritone who has been a fixture of the Italian scene since 1998. His artistry unites a plaintive Slavic timbre with clearly pronounced, clearly felt Italian diction over a foundation of secure breath reflexes. Fully within the role, Stoyanov ranges from vehemence in delivering Nabucco's royal orders to full-throated plangency in cantabili.

Ultimately our singers conclude with some welcome vocal circus, Pirozzi unleashing a top E-flat and Stoyanov following with his high A-flat: la ciliegina sulla torta [the candied cherry on the cake]!

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