WASHINGTON, April 30, 2012 – The Kennedy Center welcomed truly grand opera back to the Opera House this Saturday past, with the Washington National Opera’s opulent new production of Verdi’s Nabucco. The composer’s first bona-fide hit on his way to super-stardom, Nabucco is being presented here for the very first time in WNO’s history, and the production couldn’t have produced a finer impression.
“Nabucco” is short for “Nebuchadnezzar” (one of several spellings), the infamous Biblical Assyrian king and creator of the Hanging Gardens, who hauled the Israelites off to the Babylonian captivity in ancient times. Verdi and his librettist crafted an imaginative retelling of this historical period, creating characters, a rather secondary romantic subplot, and an almost hallucinatory happy ending.
But no matter. While Nabucco is not loaded with the kind of popular tunes that made early Verdi masterpieces into instant audience favorites, it does contain one notable chorus that arguably ended up serving as modern Italy’s first national anthem.
It’s the eye-popping quality of WNO’s production that initially demands attention. Its sets are strictly but gloriously old style, à la mid 19th century. Brilliantly colorful, hand-painted props and fabric backdrops and equally colorful period costuming lend a Western-tinged yet Middle Eastern opulence to the production. All were designed by stage director Thaddeus Strassberger with an eye toward re-creating the kind of provincial, Italian production that Verdi himself might have experienced during Nabucco’s 1842 premiere.
Mr. Strassberger takes this “period piece” conceit somewhat further by inserting the opera into a “play-within-a-play” concept, with royalty and/or upper class opera patrons entering the stage first and seating themselves in boxes before the “production” begins, all under the watchful eye of a small contingent of Austrian guards. (For more background, see Stephen Brookes’ excellent piece in last Friday’s Washington Times.)
Why Austrian guards at a 19th century Italian opera production? Simple. The Austrians owned and operated a goodly chunk of the Italian peninsula at the time this opera was written. Verdi was no particular fan of this occupation, and Nabucco was meant, at least in part, to subtly stake out the composer’s revolutionary turf while evading the watchful eye of the censors. It was something he would do again and again during his long career, earning him a permanent place in the hearts of his countrymen.
Mr. Strassberger carries his conceit still further with his unusual staging of the pivotal “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” that occurs roughly two-thirds of the way through the opera. Here, he swivels the production 180 degrees, allowing us to view the Hebrew chorus from backstage where stagehands and extras—hidden from “audience” view—subversively sing along, unfurling various manifestations of the forbidden Italian national colors.
On Saturday, the chorus was then repeated in its entirety, something that would have happened often in the 19th century with any chorus or aria the audience really liked.
Normally, we don’t much approve of an opera production that puts a director so conspicuously front and center. But Mr. Strassberger gets away with it here because it shows such an obvious reverence for the way 19th century Italian opera once was—and still in many ways is today.
Italian audiences were (and are) into opera in a way that many in the U.S. can’t comprehend or might regard as hokey. They were directly involved with the singers in a manner that might be comparable to today’s die-hard fans of “American Idol” or “Dancing with the Stars.” When you add a patriotic—and cleverly subversive—operatic subtext to the mix, you have the makings, in this case, of a revolutionary narrative, and it’s this, at least in part, that Mr. Strassberger is trying to convey.
For the most part, this colorful production, as theater, is a simply fantastic break on the typical modern remake of an old opera, which usually involves cheap, monocolor sets and a gray, negative attitude toward our drab post- or post-postmodern. Mr. Strassberger quite simply brings us back to the times when hope and change were being implemented in dramatic yet sneaky ways.
Things don’t always work here, though. The opera’s pivotal Hebrew chorus loses in visual impact what it gains in political import. The final act’s dramatically messy ending is rescued by re-casting it as Nabucco’s very bad dream, but it somehow lessens the impact of the finale. The weird facemasks of the Assyrian priests bear a bizarre resemblance to the one worn by Ghostface in the film “Scream.” And the Austrian “frame-tale” frame eventually gets a bit obtrusive. Yet taken as a whole, WNO’s Nabucco, as realized by Mr. Strassberger, is its most inventive, interesting production in recent memory.
Opera, of course, eventually gets down to the singing, so let’s not neglect that. Mr. Strassberger’s showy concept might have sunk without a trace on opening night if WNO had failed to hire the right singers. Happily, this Nabucco cast was firing on all cylinders on opening night, almost entirely without suffering the kinds of glitches that an under-rehearsed performance might have caused.
In spite of its title, the key characters of Nabucco are the Jewish prophet Zaccaria (Italian spellings here) and the opera’s villainess, Nabucco’s illegitimate daughter Abigaille.
Turkish bass Burak Bilgili—who impressed a couple of weeks back portraying the prophet Elijah in the National Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mendelssohn’s eponymous oratorio—was terrific as Zaccaria. Mr. Bilgili’s voice strongly resembles the profound, dark-hued bass voices with which the Russians seem to be uniquely gifted. And it’s this dark but clear and authoritative instrument that allows Mr. Bilgili to command each scene in which he appears.
As Abigaille, Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross is equally skilled but in a different and interesting way. Her voice is enormously powerful, which gives a sharp, dramatic edge to her vengeful, destroyer personality. But her almost old-style operatic delivery is what fits her uniquely well into this period-piece production.
Her declamatory moments are almost overly dramatic, in the manner of Callas and her friends back in the 1950s and 1960s, which themselves hearken back to the kind of singing we hear in wax-cylinder recordings from the early 1900s, not long after Verdi had passed on to his reward.
Some may find Ms. Boross delivery here a bit over-the-top. But again, it fits in extraordinarily well with the director’s concept. And the audience loved it.
While Zaccaria and Abigaille are juicy roles, the title role, Nabucco, is right up there, too, although his better moments occur late in the opera. Serious opera, like dramatic tragedy, always needs a tragic hero. And in this opera, Nabucco, as sung by Italian baritone Franco Vassallo, is your man, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character trapped by his own contradictions. We first witness him as a bloodthirsty tyrant, but eventually witness his physical and emotional collapse as he is brought down, as is Shakespeare’s Othello, by his own interior conflicts coupled with a mysterious illness that’s never fully explored.
Mr. Vassallo gets these contradictions and delivers a well-rounded tyrant, a man to be mortally feared in the early going, and a pathetic, hallucinatory ex-monarch, similar to King Lear, as the opera comes to a close. On Saturday, his singing hewed closely to his emotions in a remarkably effective performance. It was marred only by his oddly inaccurate opening moments on stage, which, in retrospect, were made all the more baffling by his near-perfect, meticulously nuanced singing in the opera’s later innings.
An opera isn’t an opera without some kind of love story. Verdi’s love story in Nabucco is rather half-baked in that, after the opera’s opening, it takes a decided back seat to the main action. That said, Verdi’s young odd couple—the upper-crust Israelite Ismaele (American tenor Sean Panikkar) and Nabucco’s biological daughter Fenena (French mezzo Géraldine Chauvet)—give it their all in this production.
Mr. Panikkar has a sweet, yet remarkably penetrating instrument that still seems to be gaining power. Ms. Chauvet, as the much put-upon Perils-of-Pauline would-be heiress to the Assyrian throne, is a remarkable talent, capable of fully expressing the contradictory emotions that define her character.
Although they’re peripheral characters in this opera, Zaccaria’s sister Anna and the Assyrian high priest of Baal add depth to the plot. As Anna, Uruguayan soprano Maria Eugenia Antúnez, adds conviction and complexity to Verdi’s various ensemble pieces, with her characterization marred only slightly by the director’s apparent insistence on having her menace the captive Fenena with a knife just a dozen too many times in the opera’s first stanza.
Bass Soloman Howard’s High Priest doesn’t get many bars to sing in this opera. But Mr. Howard’s wonderfully eccentric interpretation of this ancient but still powerful religious figure makes him one of the most memorable presences of the evening.
In addition to the fine soloists of this production, a special hat tip to the superb work of the somewhat larger-than-usual (or so it seemed) Washington National Opera Chorus. They knew the music, they followed the conductor with near-perfection, and, with one exception, sang forcefully and extraordinarily well, which is the key to success in this chorus-heavy opera.
The only time the chorus seemed to have a little trouble was when they were positioned too far back on stage, which occasionally made them inaudible. But that’s the fault of the direction, not the singing.
Under the baton of WNO’s music director, Philippe Auguin, the WNO orchestra performed with vigor and grace, with only the horns slipping notably in spots, particularly during the famous chorus. In an extraordinarily successful evening, though, the glitches were easily forgotten, although we’d hope they won’t show up in successive performances.
Postscript: If you decide to attend Nabucco—which you should—don’t forget Yogi Berra’s old adage, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” We won’t spoil the fun, but here’s a hint: Up to a third of WNO and NSO audiences start streaming for the exits during the first curtain call, the better, one supposes, to exit the parking garages before everyone else does.
Resist the temptation.
And should you see surtitles suddenly morph into Italian, don’t forget that you have a voice, too.
Rating: **** (Four out of four stars.)
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities column, The Prudent Man, in Business.
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