Verdi’s first major operatic hit, Nabucco, opened this weekend at the Kennedy Center in a sumptuous new Washington National Opera production by American director and designer Thaddeus Strassberger. The visual spectacle of the first two acts carried both story and directorial concept, evoking Biblical spectacles painted on great canvases, in static yet strikingly heroic composition.
Strassberger’s production is unapologetically “old world” opera – enormous sets that included painted backdrops that flew in and out, rich costumes in palette and detail, and a huge cast featuring some new, powerful voices. Conductor Philippe Auguin was in top form and led the orchestra in creating a sound that was bright and full throughout the evening.
Indeed, the production is a design dream, and Strassberger’s team supported his beautiful stage pictures. Mark McCullough quite literally “brought to light” some old masters’ likenesses, as if the mellow glow emanated from within the faces of the characters. Mattie Ulrich, making her WNO debut as costume designer, also deserves kudos, defining the Israelites in modest, flowing white garb while dressing the Assyrians in a burnt blood color matched with rich cerulean blue.
Nabucco is Verdi’s third opera, and he was not yet thirty when he wrote it in the early 1840s. Beneath the biblical story of the exile of the Jews under the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar, he and librettist Temistocle Solera cleverly disguised a tale of resistance and resilience by his fellow northern Italians who were at the time under Austrian domination. The opera became a symbol for Italian independence, a cry for Risorgimento.
The director set the work as a story within the story; Strasssberger’s inspiration has come from the symbolic nature of the opera to the Italian people. He uses the overture to evoke an Italian theatre performance in the mid-nineteenth century. The evening begins with a charming cotillion on stage, after which dancers take up residence in the onstage, three-storied structure of boxes to become an audience. Over the whole proceedings looms the ominous presence of a retinue of Austrian soldiers who stand guard throughout the evening.
There are some wonderful voices represented in the international cast, several appearing with the WNO for the first time. Italian baritone Franco Vasallo in the title role has a voice that commands attention. Hungarian Csilla Boros sang Nabucco’s illegitimate daughter, the villainess Abigaille, with total confidence, having performed the role recently in Rome to celebrate Italy’s 150th anniversary. There is little subtletly in the role. Boros’ strong metallic sound at the top blasted appropriately therefore, and she fearlessly plunged down into a dark, low register to deliver Verdi’s demanding score for this character. Turkish bass Burak Bilgili, a singer new to me, served up the noble role of Zaccaria, the High Priest of the Israelites, with a rich and stirring sound. Géraldine Chauvet, a French mezzo-soprano of grace, sang beautifully in the role of Fenena, Nabucco’s “good daughter”. Nonetheless, all these singers chose a style of delivery that was more about iconic posturing than character acting.
A few of the singers in lesser roles did demonstrate some finer-tuned acting skills. American tenor Sean Panikkar related moment to moment on stage, and his musical abilities were as supple and arresting as his stage presence. There was an all too brief appearance by Jeffrey Gwaltney as the Assyrian warrior Abdallo, who succeeded in portraying a soldier caught between duty and righteous action. Solomon Howard as the High Priest of Baal not only used his strong bass sound well but created a memorable physical reality as he moved tortuously across the stage with the help of mis-matched canes.
The chorus must also be acknowledged as a major character in Nabucco, and no effort was spared to make it stand out. I’ve never heard the WNO chorus deliver a better sound. Symbolically, of course, the chorus represents the Italian people crying out for nationhood. The unison of sound, stirring dynamics, and staging all helped to deliver Verdi’s message.
So what happened?
The third act became something of a train wreck for me, and especially sad was how it affected the climactic and very powerful chorus “Va, pensiero.” There was the unfortunate stalling that affected two scene changes. But let’s not blame the stagehands entirely. Whether or not there had been adequate rehearsal time for cast and crew to pull off the end of this demanding opera, things began to go awry.
The director had decided to re-insert his 19th century framing device by bringing everyone onto the stage to cover a set change leading up to the Israelites gathering on the banks of the river and the greatly anticipated chorus. Without any musical support, an odd little dance rehearsal of a tarantella, complete with dance mistress and Italianate onlookers, took place while stagehands pushed and pulled an enormous trestle into place and another huge painted scene dropped down.
Instead of keeping us in our hearts, all this stage business served to distract us. By the time we’d figured out what the director was up to, the momentum and our “heart feelings” were lost. At the end of the famous chorus, there just wasn’t a “Viva Verdi!” moment to evoke the 19th century crowd cheering the composer cheering his audience on to freedom.
Instead of the audience demanding an encore, someone backstage must have signaled the singers to make sure we got it, because the chorus sang the whole number again. Repeating the number may have worked in Italy, but on this night, though beautifully sung, it felt a little forced and awkward.
If that weren’t injurious enough, the poor stage hands had to break the scene all down immediately following, and no one was quite prepared to do so opening night. What should have been a moment of stirring silence and still moist eyes was instead a dazed silence broken by a few titters as yet another painted backdrop flew halfway down, froze, and as if caught short, popped up half way to avoid collision with the outgoing trestle before completing its full descent into place. Oh dear.
To my mind, the more serious gaff happened on the director-designer’s part: to place Nabucco inside something that looked more like an oversized dog pen than a prison. The singer rolled around a bit on the floor but this did not adequately communicate visually or emotionally that he was having a change of heart as he dreamed. The bars also cast such shadows on the singers’ faces that Verdi’s climactic scene of atonement, renunciation, conversion, and transformation, lacked any opportunity for the performers to communicate key motivational shifts.
The curtain call gave us another surprise, albeit something that might be enjoyed, as these things are, if interpreted as a spontaneous, operatic diva event. Soprano Boross stopped the applause, grabbed a flower that had been thrown down to her, slapped it back to one of the stunned onstage “audience” ladies still in her box. With the union musicians already having made their exit, Boross then pretty much demanded the cast and the audience join her in another round of “Va, Pensiero.” The cast obliged and sang the “anthem” even more beautifully than before. But the audience, some of whom were shamelessly heading to the exits to grab their cars, mostly did not. This is, sadly, Washington. The rest of us rose and applauded the efforts of these artists and the work. Viva Verdi!
Composed by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Temistocle Solera
Directed by Thaddeus Strassberger
Produced by Washington National Opera
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with 2 intermissions of 15-20 minutes