OPERA REVIEW; A Tyrant In Babylon Makes War Amid Love
By ANNE MIDGETTE
Published: March 19, 2003
If missing the president's address on Monday evening to attend the Metropolitan Opera smacked of fiddling while Rome burned, one could take some comfort in the topicality of the story. The title figure of Verdi's ''Nabucco'' is the crazy despotic ruler of Babylon -- a city that lay not far from present-day Baghdad -- who sacks Jerusalem and tries to elevate himself to the rank of god. There is a certain contemporary resonance.
''Nabucco'' is also good political music: it offers not profound subtleties but rousing popular entertainment. This opera is basically one crowd-pleasing moment after another, from the breathtaking vocal acrobatics of Abigaille, the soprano slave girl masquerading as Nabucco's daughter, to the famous chorus of the Hebrew prisoners, ''Va, pensiero,'' which in European productions often has the whole audience singing along. (Even at the Met, where encores are usually frowned on, James Levine gave this chorus its near-obligatory repeat.)
Helping along the visceral, lowbrow thrill was the way John Napier's unwieldy revolving set thrust the singers into the proscenium, blasting a wall of sound into the auditorium. Only Mr. Levine's polish and sometimes slow tempi lent some refinement to the circus atmosphere.
He seemed to communicate that all music is beautiful music worth savoring; he never went for the cheap thrill. Even the moment when lightning strikes Nabucco unfolded with a sense of deliberation, as if God gave thoughtful consideration before punishing the blasphemer. Another high point was Andrea Gruber's impressive Abigaille. This role is a killer, calling for a big range, coloratura and a huge sound; and Ms. Gruber had it all. Her voice grabbed the ear with its presence and solidity, from a deep, rich low to a generally secure and sizable top.
At her best -- and there was a lot of best on Monday, particularly in the first act -- her voice retained that character, generating an excitement that made you want to listen more. Ms. Gruber has done Turandot and Abigaille at the Met this season, two of the hardest roles in the repertory, and pulled both off with flair; and at 37 this kind of big voice is just coming into its own. Don't miss her.
The rest of the cast also sang loudly, with varying degrees of finesse. Wendy White turned in another professional performance as Fenena, Nabucco's real daughter; as her lover, Ismaele, Francisco Casanova made a fine tenor sound that was somehow not as exciting as it could be. Samuel Ramey as Zaccaria had a big wobble to his dry voice, but he was experienced enough, and musician enough, to sing through his shortcomings. A weak link was Frederick Burchinal, a muted Nabucco with rather approximate pitch.
Nabucco's music at the end of Act I in particular exposes a trait of much bel canto and early Verdi opera: the words speak of death and mass destruction, but the music seems to say that it's all a jolly dance. Given the tone of recent political war rhetoric, this may have been the most topical element of all.
Photos: ''Va, pensiero,'' the chorus of Hebrew prisoners, received an encore after ''Nabucco'' at the Met on Monday. (Jack Vartoogian for The New York Times)(pg. E5); Andrea Gruber and Frederick Burchinal in ''Nabucco.'' (Jack Vartoogian for The New York Times)(pg. E1)