Soloman Howard (High Priest of Baal) and Csilla Boross (Abigaille) in Nabucco, Washington National Opera, 2011 (photo by Scott Suchman)
The music, however, can be rather beautiful, when it is not pedestrian, as heard in Washington National Opera's first-ever production of the opera, which opened on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The casting requires a killer soprano for Abigaille, which this production almost had in Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross, with a searing top, more zing than finesse in the fioriture, but not much venom at the bottom. Baritone Franco Vassallo made an uneasy company debut in his first attempt at the title role, singing under pitch at many points, seemingly from the effort of pushing his voice uncomfortably. Turkish bass Burak Bilgili had a swallowed tone as Zaccaria, but an affecting resonance in the prayer scene Vieni, o Levita, with its somber cello sextet. Young tenor Sean Panikkar had another pleasing turn as Ismaele, singing with more heroic verve than polish (some work on Italian diction is in order). Mezzo-soprano Géraldine Chauvet was a mostly undistinguished Fenena, a pretty but pale voice making an already weak character vanish even more into the scenery. Among the supporting cast, the standout performance came from Washington, D.C., bass Soloman Howard, who was a booming High Priest of Baal, tottering about with his long-taloned hands gripping two canes.
After an intriguing production of Thomas's Hamlet two years ago, director Thaddeus Strassberger has created a staging of Nabucco that is both traditional -- tributes to 19th-century hand-painted sets (designed by Strassberger, with reference to images from the Ishtar Gate, for example), candle lighting (designed by Mark McCullough), old-school costumes (designed by Mattie Ullrich) -- and off-putting -- a play-within-the-play evocation of the Risorgimento associations of the opera's first performances, with added supernumeraries representing the conflict between the Italians and their Austrian occupiers. Unfortunately, Strassberger messed with the one piece in the opera that requires absolutely no meddling -- the famous Hebrew chorus Va, pensiero, set as if backstage, with no particular dramatic benefit (in fact, cluttered with all sorts of action and superfluous ideas, the less said about it, the better) -- and left many parts of the opera that could have used dramatic sharpening unaltered.
Anne Midgette, Opera review: ‘Nabucco’ at the Washington National Opera (Washington Post, April 30)
---, Opera: ‘Nabucco’ at Washington National Opera (Washington Post, April 20)
Stephen Brookes, ‘Nabucco’ primed for first D.C. run (Washington Times, April 26)
This production continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House, through May 21.