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'Nabucco' at Washington National Opera

Soloman Howard (High Priest of Baal) and Csilla Boross (Abigaille) in Nabucco, Washington National Opera, 2011 (photo by Scott Suchman)
Nabucco was Giuseppe Verdi's first real success as a composer, and although it is a decidedly early work, almost unworthy to be placed near the great achievements of his late career, in it one can already discern the kernel of what Verdi would be able to achieve. In a preview of his struggles with the conventions of Italian opera, Verdi includes all of those conventions -- cavatinas paired with cabalettas, the banda marching across the stage, standard aria types -- but is already looking for ways to integrate them as realistically as possible into the drama. The libretto by Temistocle Solera, based loosely on the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar's subjugation of the ancient Hebrews, is a bit of a muddle, with two antagonists -- the eponymous despot and his spiteful virago of a daughter, Abigaille, created by Verdi's eventual wife, Giuseppina Strepponi -- who cannot quite decide if they are villains are not. Later in his career, it was the sort of libretto Verdi would likely have insisted on revising more extensively than he did.

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.

Other Articles:

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)
The chorus, so important to the success of this opera, sounded in excellent form when it sang, but Strassberger left the direction of its movements sometimes uncertain and stilted. Strassberger's plan with Va, pensiero was to save the almost obligatory encore for an added dramatic moment before the curtain call. With some uncertainty from both singers and orchestra, and without much of an ovation, the encore happened anyway at the traditional place, making the added encore at the end, with Italian supertitles encouraging the audience to sing along, a little unwelcome at the end of a long performance (and risky, sung unaccompanied). At the podium, music director Philippe Auguin gave the music finely etched shape, if some of the tempi were a bit stodgy or harried, with fine playing from the brass in the overture, a quicksilver piccolo player, and those burnished cellists in Zaccaria's prayer. If the overall feeling was of a performance a little at sixes and sevens, the production is sure to have the kinks ironed out of it as time goes by.

This production continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House, through May 21.

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