Pittsburgh Opera gave the first performance of its first production of the 2015-2016 season last night – Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco. The work had not been heard locally in a number of decades, and, happily, vacant seats were few and far between in the huge auditorium of the Benedum. Nabucco, (“Nebuchadnezzar” in English) is an opera in four acts composed in 1841 by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Temistocle Solera. The libretto is based on Biblical stories from the Books of Jeremiah and Daniel, and the 1836 play by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis Cornue, although it is said that Solera drew more heavily for inspiration from Antonio Cortese’s ballet adaptation of the play, given at La Scala in 1836. Under its original name of “Nabucodonosor,” the opera was first performed at La Scala in Milan in March 1842, and was a resounding success with the public. Critical acclaim was divided.
Nabucco is the work that many consider the one which established Verdi’s reputation as a great composer. He later wrote that “this is the opera with which my artistic career really begins. And though I had many difficulties to fight against, it is certain that Nabucco was born under a lucky star.” He had been recently widowed at a young age and even considered abandoning composing altogether before beginning the work, so great was his despair. Had he done so, the operatic repertory of today would be missing Aïda, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Otello, Falstaff and a score or so other great works. Giuseppina Strepponi, the soprano who sang the role of Abigaille in the premiere of Nabucco, became Verdi’s second wife.
The plot follows the plight of the Jews as they are conquered and exiled from their homeland by the Babylonian King Nabucco (in English, Nebuchadnezzar II). Historical events are used as background for the opera’s romantic and political plot. The work is by no means the most popular or frequently performed of Verdi’s operas, but in recent years has seen a resurgence of productions. In addition to the work of the principal soloists, the opera allows for an abundance of stage spectacles and massive ensemble and chorus effects, and this production makes the most of them. In fact, the orchestra and chorus dominated throughout, and both produced some of the most impressive and moving effects heard here in quite some time.
(Nabucco Orders the Destruction of the Temple)
Antony Walker is celebrating his tenth season as Music Director of Pittsburgh Opera. When it seems that little else can be said of his gifts as a conductor, he adds to each new production the hint that the vein of talent which lies beneath his pleasant and calm demeanor is seemingly endless. Last night it was obvious that he knew the score backwards and forwards, and was throwing himself into the music mind, body and soul. He was more animated than usual, though, as always, never obtrusive; but the close observer could detect that he was determined to bring out every slightest detail in the music and give the score its full due. When he first stepped to the podium, his baton signaled a rousing rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” for which the audience arose as one and sang along. After a long burst of startled applause, the magnificent overture of Nabucco filled the Benedum with delicacy and exhilarating vigor by turns, and the tone of the evening was set. The playing of the orchestra was magnificent throughout, and Walker inspired some of the finest work ever heard from the instrumentalists.
The chorus dominates the opera, and was massive and well drilled. Mark Trawkaachieved a resounding success in keeping such a large number of singers in time and tune, and the fact that the most thrilling moment of the work, the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”, (“Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” – “Fly, thought, on golden wings”), evoked the greatest audience enthusiasm must have made him a very happy man. Such an intensely moving rendition of the chorus would have had to have been repeated at any opera house in Italy. The chorus also drew attention to the great amount of work expended on the production by the costume designer and stage directors. The principals in the work had a hand in this as well, of course, but their numbers were dwarfed by the choristers and supernumeraries. Clever staging was enhanced by impressive lighting and projection effects. The four-act opera was given in two sections, with Biblical verses that supported the story and action projected onto the drop when time was needed for scene shifting.
(“The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”)
Csilla Boross, in the difficult and somewhat thankless role of Abigaille, made her Pittsburgh Opera debut, and carried off the vocal honors among the principals. Abigaille is the central, villainess role – not especially common for the leading soprano in the world of opera. She believes she is Nabucco’s daughter, only to learn she’s descended from slaves; but nonetheless she attempts to take over as ruler after the blasphemous Nabucco declares himself a god and is promptly reduced to madness by a lightning bolt to the head. She sang with a massive volume of pure sound that only in one or two spots taxed her method. Indeed, in the last act, after she had poisoned herself, she sang of her “faint… dying” in tones that rattled the rafters. She was careful in her acting not to overdo the viciousness of the character, and it worked for the most part, where at times a more vehement display of histrionics would have added much to the drama. As Fenena, Nabucco’s real daughter (who converts to Judaism partly due to her love for Ismaele – a man Abigaille wants as well), Laurel Semerdjian once again displayed her mellow, rich mezzo-soprano to fine effect, slightly lacking in volume at times; and while she, too, was overly cautious at times in her acting, she presented a charming stage picture and lent winning sympathy to her role.
(Abigaille challenges Fenena)
Mark Delavan, in the title role, the King of Babylon, was also familiar to the audience from past appearances with the company. His voice grew in volume and effectiveness, and he managed the difficult acting the part requires quite effectively. His best singing was done near the conclusion of the opera. Much the same may be said of Orun Gradus, as Zaccaria, High Priest of the Hebrews, who sang the role with a bass voice of cavernous low tones that are difficult to accomplish and project at the same time, but he looked and acted the part well, and in the main gave an effective performance.
(Abigaille Orders Nabucco Back to Prison)
Raymond Very, as Ismaele, Adelaide Boedecker, as Anna, Matthew Scollin, as the High Priest of Baal, and Adam Bonanni, as Abdallo, rounded out the principal characters and sang the relatively small amount of music allotted to their parts with varying degrees of success and effectiveness.
It was refreshing to read in Bernard Uzan’s program notes that Nabucco defies the tendencies of modern stage directors to contemporize and “reinvent” classics which need no help to improve on the composer and librettist’s original intent. But the stage setting was supported by projections and videos just the same. Overall, the concept worked, such as in Nabucco’s order for the destruction of the temple. In the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” the innovation was used as an opportunity to briefly depict the persecution of the Jewish people throughout history – up to and including fleeting photographic images of the unsurpassable horrors from the middle of the last century. This came as a slight jar, for there are no passages in the Bible, no matter how horrific, barbaric or inhumane, that come close to depicting or predicting the savagery of the Holocaust, and, to the writer’s mind, the cruelest chapter in the history of mankind deserves the respect of the museums and memorials which exist today as unspeakably grim reminders of an era which must never be forgotten. Using images of its victims in any form of entertainment is another matter open to debate elsewhere.
The opera will be repeated on October 13, 16, and 18.
For full production, cast, schedule, and ticket information, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Opera for two complimentary press tickets.
“The Artistic Team” for Nabucco –
Antony Walker, Conductor; Bernard Uzan, Stage Director; Bernard Uzan andMichael Baumgarten, Set Designers; Malabar Ltd., Costume Designer; Michael Baumgarten, Lighting Designer; Glenn Lewis, Assistant Conductor; MarkTrawka, Chorus Master; James Lesniak, Associate Coach/Pianist; James Geier, Hair & Make-up Designer; Jennifer Williams, Assistant Director; Cindy Knight, Stage Manager.
Photographs: David Bachman Photography.
Performance Date: Saturday, October 10, 2015