An Unforgettable Anti-Heroine 

Maria Guleghina as Abigaille was indisputably the star of these performances. She erupted onto the stage with tremendous force and obvious enjoyment of the role. Shrill and vengeful in Part I, her voice rising and plunging through harsh high notes and ominous low ones, she established herself immediately as a personification of evil. She was not vocally pretty, not likable, not always easy on the ears—but she was thrilling, alive, and full of extraordinary power. Her performance brought to mind Alex Ross’s comment on Anita Rachvelishvili’s Amneris: “Not all the sounds she made were beautiful, but all had a dramatic point.”

How surprising, then, to encounter Guleghina again in Part II, when her character has newly discovered that she’s the daughter of a slave rather than of a king. Guleghina, in this scene, sang “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno” with an intimacy and deep sensitivity that made a marvelous contrast to the evil of Part I. Her portrayal was hauntingly human. One felt as if one witnessed a deeply private moment: as if Abigaille were alone with herself, musing aloud on her soul’s deepest longings. The stage, the audience, the theater itself: all the artifice and spectacle of opera seemed erased. It felt as if only one human were present, singing words that were genuine, vulnerable, and real.

In Part III Guleghina became wonderfully queenly, imperious and believable in her enjoyment of political dominance. Most powerful of all, however, was her repentance scene in Part IV. Here she sang with the thin, breaking voice of a dying Violetta. She was more vulnerable and genuine than ever, and utterly believable in her humanity. The ethereal otherworldliness of her plea for mercy brought to mind Lucia’s mad scene. One sympathized with her deeply, despite her evil, as one sympathizes with the murderess Lucia. When she fell to the stage in death, rejected by God as her beloved and her father had already rejected her, one felt God’s judgment as a cruel blow. It made an extraordinary contrast with her entrance in Part I, when she’d seemed nothing more than a hurricane of hatred and vengeance.

Paling In Comparison

George Gagnidze as Nabucco, by contrast, seemed pale in comparison with Guleghina. His performance was dramatically intelligent; one felt that each word he sang had meaning; his voice was satisfyingly robust; and yet the restraint of his performance, paired with Guleghina’s phenomenal fireworks, made his performance seem to lack a spark of reality. His was a life-sized performance, whereas Guleghina’s was larger than life. He was most effective when not paired with Guleghina onstage. In Part IV, when his character returns to sanity and Guleghina’s Abigaille is no longer present with him, his repentant pleas to God felt heartbreakingly earnest, dramatically sensitive, and no longer pale.

As a whole, Keith Warner’s production remained unfulfilling, though interesting enough in its own way. Maria Guleghina, however, was a force of nature, and her masterly, enthralling, emotionally nuanced performance of Abigaille is one to make a skeptic take the role seriously. While not a flawless night, it was memorable and worthwhile.