Nabucco in HD: Opera Too Close for Illusion

categories: Cocktail Hour


Nabucco set at the Roman Quarry of St. Margarethen

Last night at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, Maine, for a mere fifteen bucks, I saw a great performance of Verdi’s Nabucco, a confusing opera about Nebuchadnezzar conquering Jerusalem.  He goes mad, his daughters fall in love with the same guy, a lot of singing ensues.   The evening was filmed in Austria at the 2007 Festspiele at the truly amazing and ancient Roman quarry of St. Margarethen, which has been converted into a concert venue, high cliffs of stone carved into various staircases and theater wings.  It’s a gonzo performance, with actors being hung by the neck and stuntmen leaping off the walls like so many college drunks at whichever reservoir or football game, and fiery explosions and general wonderment.

The singing is great.  Verdi is great.  For the singing, for Verdi, go see the movie.

But it’s filmed in HD.  And High Definition just undercuts the suspension of disbelief, looks for all its clarity a little like early video tape, every wart and bead of sweat.  The High Priest of Baal is a bass, also an Asian, okay fine, but you can see his tongue glistening and every hair in his nose, stray threads hanging off his crown or hoodie, or whatever it’s supposed to be.  He’s got dirt under one of his fingernails.

Abigaille in a more forgiving light (Gabriella Morigi)

Abigaille is Nabucco’s eldest daughter, and she must be the very, very oldest, because so close up, you can see she’s almost as old as he is, also that she has a kind of growth on her forehead.  Her voice is spectacular, though, and soon enough you forget and begin to believe—she’s a former slave, she’s the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar…  And she’s had good dentistry—you can see the fillings in her teeth, the kind they don’t use any more, those silver amalgam fillings.  If she were a tree you could count her rings.  After her first aria, the audience—seated formally in front of the wall of the old quarry—clap politely, briefly.  No yelling—this is Austria.  Ja, ja, fine, pat, pat, pat of the hands, Now let’s get on mit der opera. You’ve heard better applause at a trade show.  And no zooming in on audience members, no effort to make us feel part of the spectacle, just pull the camera back, and back, and show the immensity of the set (and the highway behind, the headlights of cars snaking past and a radio tower blinking), before zooming back in to show the plastic clip on a slave’s pink bra strap.

Abigaille’s sister is Fenena—who also has a growth on her forehead, and whose acting skills are good enough that you believe she loves Ismaele, who has a beautiful tenor voice.  He’s wearing a pair of basically desert boots with four-inch heels you wouldn’t see from the audience, and he’s still not quite as tall as his beloved.  From the audience you wouldn’t notice his frequent glances at the conductor, either, but in HD, that’s all you can see—these almost furtive dartings as he confesses his love.   And he’s got a growth on his forehead, too.

Ah! It’s a microphone!  They’ve woven micro-microphones through the hair of the singers and taped them to the skin just above and between their eyes, then applied makeup to the tape.

Now, once you figure this out, all you can see is the tape, and how well or poorly the make-up shade matches each player’s skin tone.  A bubble of spit forms as our diminutive tenor whisper-sings his last lines, eyes firmly somewhere stage left, but definitely not on Fenena.  The spit-bubble grows.  Ismaele doesn’t know it.  He’s watching the conductor.  Oh, wait!  Maybe he’s in love with the conductor!  That would explain it.  Fenena has an abstracted look in her eye.  She has to run up the stairs shortly.  She’s already gathering the folds of her dress.  She’s given up on eye contact.  Her lover’s spit-bubble pops.


A couple of overweight priests have to follow her.  Close up, you see they are panting, hard.  Is there a defibrillator in ancient Jerusalem? More sweat.

A medieval-looking war engine is wheeled into the city gates, topped by a gryphon spitting fire.  Pretty cool.  The close up shows it to be stagecraft, but that’s all right.  Then you see a fine spray of what must be, like, charcoal lighter spitting from its lips in an arc before the spark: ignition!

400 people in the cast!  Some of them teenagers.  One is looking around, slouching.  You pick him out every time.  Is that a skateboard under his robes?  A young woman is so nervous she’s tugging at the hem of her golden bodice, searching the audience for her parents.  The camera picks out unawares face after unawares face in the chorus.  Why’s that slave smiling?  Why is that guard licking his lips?  Who’s that petting his own beard?

Here comes Abigaille again, gorgeous voice.  She wears a cape of gold lamé, with a train 100 feet long.  It fastens around her neck with one of those plastic buckles from an L.L. Bean backpack.  The camera zooms in on the buckle repeatedly.  The tape on her microphone is lifting.  Her teeth are a little yellow.  She shows the fillings again.  Someone should tell her about the new composites: suitable for HD, and about those Crest White-Strips.

I have no idea what’s happening in the story, but at least it’s all crystal clear.


  1. Brittany writes:

    You are keenly observant — that obviously is a real handicap.

  2. George de Gramont writes:

    Nabucco a great opera. We go to at least 8 simulcast operas a year . Theatre is only 1 mile away. A great treat . But had not heard about this one . Will be on the lookout for it .So thanks for the tip and an essay that Verdi would have enjoyed

    • Bill writes:

      I love the Metropolitan Opera Saturday simulcasts, which are done very well, and make room for the audience in the opera house and retain and even cherish the look and feel of the opera. This Nabucco was part of a series of pre-recorded concerts and operas done by SpectiCast, a private European outfit. It’s wonderful in that a brilliant small art theater like Railroad Square in Waterville (an hour from here) can take part. But nothing like the Met’s Saturdays, which I have to drive to Rockland to see, out on the coast, two hours.

  3. Valerie Lane writes:

    Once I saw Carol Channing in person at the Melody Tent in “Hello Dolly”. My daughter and son who were 8 and 9 or something like that were in hysterics because you could see her spitting as she belted out the songs. They couldn’t stop laughing. USHhDOlly will never go away shagain!. Oh and did I say we were in the second row and could see her tonsils? I think she could see us laughing. Your story is very entertaining and funny. You always make me laugh no matter what you write about.

    However Abagail looks beautiful and not too old to me!

    • Bill writes:

      The Melody Tent–In Hyannis, right? Gabriella Morigi is very beautiful, yes. It’s just that the HD camera didn’t allow for any imagination! Maria Callas sang the role when she was 26, and was thought too old…