The epitome of Italianate style, Leo Nucci appeared in many of the repertory’s most captivating baritone roles—especially those of his countryman Giuseppe Verdi—over the course of his two-and-a-half decade Met career. By Christopher Browner
While composers throughout operatic history have created compelling baritone roles, Giuseppe Verdi elevated the voice type to a new level—from nefarious antagonists like Iago, Count di Luna, and Macbeth to the buffoon Falstaff to some of opera’s most nurturing, and complex, father figures. And with his Golden Age–quality voice and commanding stage presence, Italian-born Leo Nucci was distinctly qualified to bring these plum baritone parts to the stage.
Of the more than 180 performances Nucci gave at the Met, beginning with his 1980 debut as Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera opposite Luciano Pavarotti and Katia Ricciarelli, all but a handful were in the works of Verdi. (In fact, aside from nine performances as the title character of Tchaikovsky’s Russian drama Eugene Onegin, Nucci appeared exclusively in works from the Italian repertoire.) In all, he appeared in ten of the composer’s operas, creating memorable portrayals as Miller in Luisa Miller, Don Carlo in La Forza del Destino (pictured above), Germont in La Traviata, Rodrigo in Don Carlo, Amonasro in Aida, Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, and the title role of Rigoletto (pictured below).
Verdi’s brooding jester was far and away Nucci’s signature role—one that he sang at nearly every major opera house worldwide. At the Metropolitan, he donned Rigoletto’s motley on 31 occasions (including in the 1989 premiere of Otto Schenk’s new production), only a small fraction of the 550 times he is reported to have sung the role over the course of his legendary career.
Aside from Verdi, Nucci had successes in bel canto works as well, including Met appearances as Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, both Dr. Dulcamara and Sgt. Belcore in L’Elisir d’Amore, and Figaro, the cunning barber of Seville, in Il Barbiere di Siviglia (pictured above, with Kathleen Battle). And during his final year with the company, 2004, he unveiled two new portrayals for Met audiences—the title role of Nabucco (pictured below) and Guido di Monforte in I Vespri Siciliani (pictured at the top of this page), the latter coinciding with his 2,000th performance on the operatic stage. Of his Met role debut as Nabucco, The New York Times proclaimed, “Only great experience can provide the stylistic insight and emotional honesty that characterized his portrayal of the tormented Babylonian king.”
Nucci’s incredible artistry was captured in almost two dozen Met radio broadcasts and six Live from the Met telecasts—including Un Ballo in Maschera and Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which are streaming for free this week.
Christopher Browner is the Met’s Associate Editor.