Verdi’s Nabucco opened last Saturday night at McCaw Hall, with the run continuing through August 22; it will be broadcast live next Saturday evening, August 15, on KING-FM. A smash hit when it was first presented in 1842, it still has that power, which one experiences most strongly in the music in Seattle Opera’s production. The singing is magnificent from everybody, chorus included.
The opera, Verdi’s first major success at age 29, is dominated by the role of Abigaille, which has in the past been considered a voice killer. It has to be sung with ferocious and acrobatic intensity most of the time, but includes a few tender moments as well. Seattle Opera’s former general director Speight Jenkins heard Mary Elizabeth Williams sing it and determined to bring her here to repeat the role. She has performed it all over Europe and it’s good to report that it has not destroyed her voice. Soprano Williams was a Young Artist here in 2000-01 and has gone from strength to strength. She was superb and terrifying as Abigaille, despite a tendency to be a hair under the note on her top Cs. Her acting was splendid and menacing, and in her gentler moments she sounded exquisite.
Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, making his debut here as Zaccaria, sang with deep well-cored, authoritative richness, a foil to Nabucco, sung by baritone Gordon Hawkins. To begin with Hawkins sounded a little as though he was losing his core, but the voice tightened up and he gave a memorable performance, particularly as a weakened fuzzy-minded old man. Young mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Fenena, new here, has a truly beautiful voice with depth and nuance. She will surely be back, while tenor Russell Thomas, another Young Artist graduate, singing Ismaele, is another it will be a pleasure to hear again. In short, every voice was a joy to hear.
The story, with a libretto by Temistocle Solera, is a highly imaginative, emotionally extreme version of the biblical story of Jerusalem’s sack by Nebuchadnezzar, and the subsequent exile of the Hebrews to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar (or Nabucco, as he is called here) takes both his daughters to war with him. One, gentle Fenena, is captured by the Hebrews, only to be freed by her Hebrew lover, Ismaele, negating her hostage value. The other, Abigaille, is consumed by ambition, frustration (she wants Ismaele), and rage against anything in her way, including her father. In Babylon, Nabucco pronounces himself a god and demands worship. The Hebrew god smites him with lightning (a startling lighting moment), he goes mad and weak, and Abigaille seizes the moment to grab the crown, ordering the death of all the Hebrews, including Fenena who has embraced the Hebrew god. They are all about to be slaughtered when Nabucco renounces Baal, embraces the Hebrew god, regains his strength, and cancels the slaughter. Abigaille takes poison and dies in remorse.
In an unusual format, the orchestra spans the middle of the McCaw Hall stage, with the proscenium pushed out over the pit, no doubt with the intention of bringing the major protagonists closer to the audience, thus making the experience more intimate. This extra 20 feet or so may have worked for those in the front half of the orchestra stalls, but didn’t make much difference for those further back, and the division of the stage and visibility of the orchestra made for awkward moments and stilted staging. It didn’t, however, affect vocal or orchestral sound.
In all but one chorus, the Hebrews and Babylonian soldiers stay in the back part of the stage, behind the orchestra. There are only two ways for them to move, left and right, so when the soldiers attack and one would expect the Hebrews to scatter every which way, they can’t. When the Hebrew high priest, Zaccaria, exhorts and comforts them, he is facing the audience from the front of the stage and his flock is behind him. There are several moments like this which don’t feel natural in this staging by François Racine.
Perhaps because of the narrowed front stage, movement around tended to be more static than we usually see here, even when the chorus came on in front to sing the famous “Va pensiero.” Trained by John Keene, it outdid itself and received prolonged applause. However it was jolting to see conductor Carlo Montanero applauding them also from his podium. Montanero paced the performance deftly, keeping the orchestra well balanced with the singers, surely not an easy job with the unusual positioning.
The backdrop sets of Jerusalem and Babylon are abstract, changing video projections by principal designer Robert Bonniol. One vaguely suggests the temple and its destruction, but with a dead horse head and neck in the middle, which seemed mystifying until a couple of acts later when Nabucco mentions his horse. The most concrete are the famous hanging gardens of Babylon presented as plants in huge bubbles which descend from the flies. Mostly they are somewhat puzzling. Props are minimal, just one stool in one act, one large modern chair with side table in another.
With sumptuous blue and gold for the Babylonians, and simple red and brown for the Hebrews, Ginette Grenier’s costumes made welcome splashes of color.