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May 6, 2012

Vividly sung, intriguingly staged 'Nabuuco' from Washington National Opera

With “Nabucco,” his third opera, Verdi’s career truly began. He would go on to do much finer work, but his talent and potential are unmistakable here.

The first night at La Scala in 1842 was not just a triumph for the composer; the success meant much more  at a time when the north of Italy was under Austrian rule.

A story based on the Old Testament account of the Israelites during their Babylonian Captivity, yearning to be free, could not help but strike a chord and a nerve. From “Nabucco” on,” Verdi would be nearly as much a political force as a musical one.

Washington National Opera, after 56 years, has finally added the composer’s early masterwork to its repertoire. It has done so with  ...

a musically potent production that strives hard to remind today’s audiences of what “Nabucco” meant to Italian audiences when it was new.

Director/designer Thaddeus Strassberger has devised an opera-within-an-opera concept for this staging. La Scala-like boxes flank one side of the stage. Elegantly dressed patrons take their seats during the overture and after the intermissions and intently watch the performance, while Austrian soldiers keep an eye on everyone.

Most of the time, the idea works well, especially since Strassberger’s scenic design of the opera proper so gloriously conjures up a sense of 19th century theatrical grandeur (Mattie Ullrich designed the sumptuous, traditional costumes).

Several disconcerting things happen during the music-making, though, which call too much attention to the concept, at the expense of “Nabucco” itself.

Do we really need the distraction, several times, of an attendant laboriously tending to a whole mess of footlights (especially when the level of illumination doesn’t discernibly change as he moves along)?

And, yes, opera-going in days of yore could involve a lot more than opera, but do we really need to see the upper-crusties break into ballroom dancing on their way to the boxes?

When we get to the opera’s most famous, most indelible moment, the stirring choral piece “Va, pensiero,” a potentially interesting switch to a backstage perspective strangely goes awry.

Too much stuff goes on -- wandering crew members, a ballet class rehearsal, the preparation of a lighted prop -- when all the attention should be focused squarely on that amazing music. At the very least, shouldn’t all those folks crammed into the scene register a visible reaction to the power of Verdi’s melody as it unfolds?

And what on earth is up with all the added action to the big Part Two scene for Abagaille, from monks praying in overly elaborate fashion to more monks in scream masks turning into whirling Babylonians? If I were the soprano trying to get through the demanding music, I’d be taking a swing at those nuisances crowding the stage.

Such things only pile unnecessarily onto what is otherwise an imaginative and engrossing theatrical approach to the opera. Speaking of unnecessary, three performances of “Va, penisero” in one night is one too many.

The idea of allowing an encore the first time around is understandable. It happened in 1842, even though encores had been banned by the authorities. It happens a lot to this day, especially at Italian opera houses. But Strassberger has also built an encore into a post-script for the production (don’t even think of dashing to the parking lot when at the last written note of this “Nabucco”).

It's offers one more way of underlining the implications of “Va, pensiero” when it was new, and what it can still mean to any yoked people yearning to be free. That’s all to the good, but not after the music has already been sung twice. Verdi, I suspect, would have considered that overkill.

Well, you can’t say that Strassberger doesn’t give you lots to think and argue about. I’ll take that any day over a bland staging.

On the vocal front, there is some weakness where it hurts. This low-male-voice-heavy opera can use firmer, richer sounds than Franco Vassallo, as Nabucco, and Burak Bilgili, as Zaccaria, summon (or summoned the night I heard them, when Vassallo also encountered some uncomfortable pitch problems in the early going).

In both cases, though, there is a great deal of expressive styling in the singing and, within the limitations of very old-fashioned opera characters, persuasive acting.

The standout among the principals is Csilla Boross as Abagaille, a role that makes treacherous technical demands. The soprano has a terrific set of pipes, with abundant fire at the top and gutsy power in the low and middle range. She can slice through an ensemble scene, easily, excitingly.

It’s not just an electric vocal performance; Boross brings abundant temperament and personality to a ruthless character made all the more imposing here with an entrance that involves slitting the throat of a prisoner. (Abagaille’s final scene is handled a lot less imaginatively; the repentant, self-poisoned woman just wanders off the stage.)

With her dark, smooth voice, Geraldine Chauvet makes an effective Fenena. Sean Panikkar puts considerable life into the underwritten tenor role of Ismaele with warm, vibrant singing.

The chorus is a leading character in this opera. Washington National’s choristers, prepared by Steven Gathman, rise to the occasion with cohesive, beautifully nuanced singing. A long-sustained pianissimo close of “Va, pensiero” is achieved in a most affecting fashion.

The orchestra digs into the score with panache. Guiding everyone along steadily is conductor Philippe Auguin, who has Verdi’s music seething with life from the get-go.

Performances of "Nabucco" continue through May 21.

PHOTOS BY SCOTT SUCHMAN FOR WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:30 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera
        

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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