Daring Diva

Powered by fearless soprano Francesca Patanè, Michigan Opera Theatre’s ‘Nabucco’ is something to sing about.
A portrait of Patanè, who once worked as a fashion model. As Lady Macbeth, another taxing Verdi role. photographs courtesy of Michigan Opera Theatre

It’s a role that demands Wagnerian lung power, the coloratura agility of a meadowlark, and a darkly menacing chest register. No wonder so many sopranos run for cover when it comes to casting the part of Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco.

But a few intrepid women step up to the plate.

Italian singer Francesca Patanè is one. She makes her Michigan Opera Theatre debut in the company’s presentation of Nabucco in October. Her name may not be familiar to American opera fans because she’s sung almost exclusively in Europe. But metro Detroiters almost assuredly will remember her turn as Abigaille. MOT is presenting the 1842 work for the first time in the company’s nearly 40-year history; the last time it was performed here was by the visiting Metropolitan Opera in 1961.

If the name Patanè rings a bell, it’s because Francesca’s father, Giuseppe, was a renowned operatic conductor, as was her grandfather, Franco. Also, her mother, Rita, with whom she still studies, is a respected vocal teacher and former diva. Francesca even named her daughter (now grown) Thais, who is the heroine of Massenet’s opera of the same name.

Despite her family’s musical lineage, it was her own stature as an artist that persuaded MOT General Director David DiChiera to bring her on board.

“Francesca’s reputation in what we call ‘killer roles,’ like Turandot, Lady Macbeth, and Abigaille, is solid. She’s among just a handful of people who can do them,” DiChiera says. “She’s probably as close to the real thing that there is.”

Patanè, reached at her Switzerland home shortly after singing a string of Nabuccos in Germany, is accustomed to tackling tough roles. Still, she says Abigaille’s music isn’t for lightweights.

“You have the Trio as soon as you come in, where you have those high C’s that you should be singing piano [softly] after you’ve been screaming. Then you have the same thing with the recitative, aria, and cabaletta. In opera, we say it’s either meat or fish. Nabucco is in between, because it requires the aggressive part of the warrior and a bel canto phrasing.”

While acknowledging the role’s grueling demands, Patanè is grateful for one thing. Unlike Salome or Lady Macbeth, Abigaille isn’t on stage for most of the opera. “After the second act, I say, ‘OK, the worst is over. You have a duet in the last scene, which is very short.’ ”

Patanè says her interpretation was influenced by the late Bulgarian soprano Ghena Dimitrova.

“I think she was the best Abigaille of all time,” she says. “I’ve seen her on stage doing the role, and I knew her very well. She gave me some advice, too. She said, ‘Francesca, just remember when you sing that role, you are in command, and you decide what to do. Don’t let anyone tell you anything.’ ”

Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar, in English), set in about 600 B.C., tells the biblical story of the king of the Babylonians’ enslavement and exile of the Jews. His daughter, Abigaille, goes through an emotional wringer of jealousy, romance, rage, and ambition. She and her sister are in love with the same man, but he doesn’t return Abigaille’s affection. Then she discovers that Nabucco isn’t really her father, and that she’s the daughter of Hebrew slaves. Finally, she vies for Nabucco’s crown.

The chorus probably plays a more vital role than in any other opera. In fact, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves (“Va pensiero”) is the work’s most recognizable music. “The chorus in this opera is as important as the principals,” DiChiera says. “When the Italian people first heard ‘Va pensiero’, it became a kind of calling card to inspire them to seek freedom from Austrian domination. They related the plight of the Israelites with their own.”

Patanè, a former fashion model, says that experience has aided her deportment on stage. “I also studied ballet and gymnastics, and all of these things help in movement,” she explains.

The soprano claims another side benefit to her career — she’s married to a fellow singer, baritone Marco Chingari. “We study together, we sing together, we prepare together,” she says.

“It’s very helpful to have a companion who speaks the same language. My first husband had nothing to do with music, and it didn’t work.”

Nabucco will be presented at 7:30 p.m., on Oct. 17, 21, and 24 at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit; 313-237-SING, motopera.org. Tickets are $29-$121

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