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Bob Bernard's Corner: Il Primo Verdi Baritono --- Assolutamente!

Italian baritone Leo Nucci

By Bob Bernard

He has been:

  • Count di Luna, in an opera replete with mixed-up identities, having Manrico, his own brother, executed [Il Trovatore].
  • Nabucco, King of Babylon, succumbing in his attempt to subjugate the Israelite prisoners and then submitting to Jehovah.
  • Iago, Otello’s Ensign, declaring his belief in a cruel god and then using his station to stimulate the fatal flaw of jealousy in Otello’s psyche.

He is Italian baritone Leo Nucci, now having performed these as part of the nineteen Verdi operatic roles in his repertoire. His performances often elicit demands for intra-act encores from audiences (very reliably, for example, the ‘Si! Vendetta’ duet with Gilda in Rigoletto). His first performance as Rigoletto was a family affair: his wife Adrianna Anelli, six months pregnant with their daughter Cinzia, was Gilda. His performance run as Rigoletto for the Wiener Staatsoper in 2014 pushed his lifetime appearances over the five hundred mark for this, his signature role.

His career in major opera houses began in 1978 following a last-minute call from Covent Garden to sing the role of Miller for a dress rehearsal of Luisa Miller. So enthusiastic was the audience response following the rehearsal that he got to sing the premiere along with Pavarotti and Katia Ricciarelli. He celebrated his 50th year of his professional career at the Teatro di Parma this recent January.

For much of his early professional career, Nucci included the works of other composers in his performing repertoire. His Figaro entrance aria (“Largo al factotum”) from 1980 in Macerata in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville showcased Nucci’s ability to project the opening bars from beneath a sheath of bedclothes.


Largo al factotum della citta.; Presto a bottega che l'alba e gia.
Ah, che bel vivere, che bel piacere[ per un barbiere di qualita!
[Handyman of the city; Early in the workshop I arrive at dawn.
Ah, what a life, what a pleasure for a barber of quality!]

Rigoletto’s character is multifaceted: ribald as a jester and contemptuous of his employer, but possessed of loving remembrance for his late wife and a fanatical devotion to the protection of his daughter. Nucci often adds a tender sidelight to the duet in which Rigoletto swears vengeance against the Duke, while Gilda pleads for her lover: ["Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta!”]. Nucci will begin to drag Gilda off angrily, but will then reconsider and impetuously improvise a loving, forgiving embrace.


Nucci and Inva Mula from Parma

Nucci explained his present restriction to take on only Verdi roles for the rest of his career in a 2009 interview with Dominic McHugh for the (now dormant) website MusicalCriticism: “Verdi gives me something special: my values of life, the values with which I was born, the values of my grandfather. I love the humanism of Italian art, beginning with Dante, continuing with the Renaissance, [and] finishing in the late nineteenth century with Verdi.”

In our lives today, we see the playing out of the humanistic, enduring truths from Shakespearean tragedies. If Rigoletto is for all time, then the Bard’s Macbeth is especially for our time. We see highly successful politicians, TV personalities, movie produces, and opera conductors, each plagued with a flaw that proves fatal in the waning years of their respective careers.

From act four, Macbeth recognizes that it is a “heads I lose, tails I lose” situation. He realizes now that he is both hated and feared; that, even if he were to be victorious in the coming battle with Macduff, no honor or love await him. Here, from a live performance in Parma in 2006, we see etched in Leo Nucci’s face the fatalism in Piave’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s text. The enduring humanity of Shakespeare as Macbeth lives out the classic tragedy of a great man burdened with a single flaw that, now in his closing days, has doomed him.


“Mercy, respect, love, the comfort of old age will not cast a single flower upon your waning years --- Nor need you hope for gentle words upon your royal monument; curses alone, alas, shall be your funeral dirge --- Curses alone …..”

“Opera is not a show; opera is emotion” – Leo Nucci

Viva Verdi! … Viva Nucci!

Cover image: Leo Nucci as Rigoletto in Parma

Author: Thomas Lady
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