Some stage directors probably would say that it’s insane to take a full-sized orchestra out of the pit and put it on stage during an opera performance, but that didn’t stop director François Racine from doing it for Seattle Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Nabucco.” Racine also had the company cover the orchestra pit with a stage so that the singers could come closer to the audience. Overall, for the opening night performance that I heard on Saturday (August 8), it worked pretty smoothly. The principals, led by Gordon Hawkins in the title role, were just a few feet from the front row and occasionally were a bit too focused on the monitors mounted on the stage floor. The chorus, which has a big role in this opera, sang mostly from the rear where they got the benefit of looking directly at conductor Carlo Montanaro. But because most of the real estate was taken up by the performers, the production had to rely more on projected imagery, and that part of the equation was very uneven because the some of the projections, created by Robert Bonniol and Robert Schaub, were confusing.
This was the first time that Seattle Opera has presented “Nabucco,” which received its premiere in 1842 and became Verdi's first big hit. The libretto by Solera plays light and loose with the Biblical account, adding a love triangle that propels the storyline. After conquering numerous peoples, including the Hebrews, the King of the Babylonian armies, Nebucco (Nebuchadnezzar), declares himself to be God. That immediately causes a thunderbolt to strike him and render him insane. In the meantime, Nebucco’s daughter Fenena has fallen in love with a Jewish man Ismaele and spares the Hebrews from the wrath of Nebucco. However, Fenena’s half-sister Abigaille is also in love with Ismaele, but he rejects her. Taking advantage of her father’s condition and backed the Babylonian High Priest, Abigaille seizes Nebucco’s crown and declares herself the ruler. She then decides that the Hebrews and Fenena should be put to death, and for extra insurance, tricks her father into signing the decree. Things unravel for her when Nabucco prays to the God of the Hebrews and regains his sanity.
Hawkins gave a marvelous performance as Nabucco, a boisterous man initially all puffed up with his victories until he addled by a force beyond his comprehension. To heighten the sense of someone brought to his knees, Hawkins lowered his voice to a shudder and convincingly found the emotion of a man who was on the brink of destruction.
With her powerful voice, Mary Elizabeth Williams plumbed the depths of anger and jealousy in character of Abigaille. Williams started out a little rough as if she were pressing for too much volume and that caused a couple of exposed, under-pitch tones. But she wonderfully switched to a lovely, tender tone when Abigaille sang of her love for Ismaele, and from that point onward, she conquered numerous stentorian passages with a golden soprano tone.
Russell Thomas’s virile tenor gave Ismaele a strong and ardent presence. Contrasting well with him was the soothing voice of Jamie Barton in the role of Fenena. Christian Van Horn turned in a tremendous performance as Hebrew’s High Priest, Zaccaria. Van Horn’s resilient bass-baritone had extra vim and vigor, and he sang Zaccaria’s zealous declarations with stunning conviction. The High Priest of Baal was sung by Jonathan Silvia with distinction.
The Seattle Opera Chorus, prepared by John Keene, sang its many numbers outstandingly. The singers came out front for the famous “Va pensiero” chorus, and their rendition elicited the most sustained, enthusiastic applause that I’ve ever heard for this chorus. I thought that they would respond with a bis, but alas, that didn’t happen.
Conductor Carlo Montanaro paced the orchestra expertly and brought out textures that worked well with the singers. Superb playing by principal cellist Eric Han and principal flutist Alexander Lipay added marvelously to the production, and the offstage banda (chamber ensemble) also contributed splendidly.
Bonniol and Schaub’s projections sometimes went wide of the mark in that some didn’t seem to relate to the story. And when they missed the mark, they became a distraction rather than an enhancement. At one point there was a massive detached horse’s head shown but it seemed totally out of context. (It brought up thoughts of “The Godfather” movie in my mind.) Another image suggested a ring of sea creatures or something entirely unidentifiable until it sort of morphed into chains. More understandable images included the opening one that suggested a huge cavern and impending doom, the magical spheres of the gardens of Babylon, and the image of Baal, which disintegrated when the Hebrew’s God triumped. It also seemed that when Nabucco’s mind became clearer, the projections would have become lighter and uplifting, but they didn’t.
Still, this Nabucco has plenty of nerve and verve, making it a real winner for opera lovers. I don’t know that I will ever see another opera orchestra sharing the stage with the singers. Seattle Opera proved that it can be done in a way that is not disruptive, but somehow I doubt that they will try it again. If they do, then critics like me make think that the company’s General Director, Aidan Lang, has gone a little insane.
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