Cher Public

By Jehovah!

When Maestro Carlo Rizzi lifted his baton and began leading the Lyric Opera Orchestra in a stirring, detailed account of the overture to Nabucco, the electrified audience knew we were in for an exciting evening of music making.  And indeed we were.  Verdi’s third opera and his first big success requires a cast of powerful, full throated singers with a wide range and great stamina.  On Saturday night at the Civic Opera House in Chicago, we certainly had them. 

Nabucco is an immense undertaking, here with some 120 people frequently on stage at the same time.  It explores traditional Verdian themes of religion’s relationship to government, oppressor and oppressed, but more important are the characters’ personal relationships with each other and with power and ambition.  It also is the first example of the complicated father-daughter relationships that seemed to fascinate Verdi and would be explored later in Luisa Miller, Simon Boccanegra, Rigoletto, even Aida.

And while the drama and the music lack subtlety, they are nevertheless potent, sometimes thrilling.  The plot takes some pretty simplistic turns (especially when thunder rumbles and Jehovah strikes Nabucco into instant delirium, then just as instantly restores him in the third act) but the up-and-down battles between the Hebrews and the Babylonians make for exciting theatre and even occasionally evoke thoughts of the present day conflict in the Middle East.

Nabucco is also a very chorus-heavy opera, and the Lyric Opera Chorus under Chorus master Michael Black rose to the occasion with their best work in recent memory.  From the very beginning of the piece, with the Hebrews begging Jehovah to save them from the advancing army of Nabucco, “Gli arredi festivi”, the chorus produced a wall of unified sound that surely resounded through the Chicago Loop.

They sang throughout with power and absolute precision, whether singing the plaintive music of the Hebrew oppressed or the more aggressive music of the Babylonians.  Of course, everybody is waiting for Verdi’s most famous chorus, “Va, pensiero” in the third act, with the Hebrews longing for their native land.  The chorus and orchestra gave a splendid rendition, touching and musically detailed.

The role of Nabucco’s fierce adopted daughter Abigaille is, of course, widely described as a “voice killer.”  Her fiendishly difficult music requires huge two-octave leaps, descents into chest voice, smooth legato, and even coloratura.  And the soprano has to sing in anger and rage through much of the opera.

Tatiana Serjan’s searing and powerful performance had all these qualities and more.  Her great scena that begins Act Two was a triumph.  Featuring gleaming top notes and dark, potent lows, Serjan went seamlessly from anger at Nabucco to a touchingly vulnerable “Anch’io dischuiso un giorno” as she recalls her love for Ismaele, right back to frightening fury in the great cabaletta “Salgo gia dal trono aurato” where Abigaille decides to seize her father’s throne.

Serjan is also a fine actress, bringing real depth to this sometimes one-dimensional character.  And all the while, Serjan never betrayed a hint of strain.

In the title role, veteran baritone Zeljko Lucic made a puzzling first entrance, vocally small and making no particular attempt at portraying the warrior king.  After the exciting singing that had gone before, his entrance scene was a major anti-climax.  But perhaps he was “saving” his voice for later, as he seemed to come to life in his delirium scene and grew better and better in his “mad scene” with Abigaille.

In the fourth act, when Nabucco prays to the Hebrew god and renounces Baal, Lucic sang his aria “Dio di Giuda” with melting lyricism, filled with desperate hope to save his daughter Fenena from execution.

The rest of the cast was quite strong.  Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy was a potent Zaccaria, his booming sound giving great authority and power to his religious decrees.  Elizabeth DeShong was a plaintive Fenena, her lush soprano particularly effective in her final prayer “O dischiuso e il firmamento.”  Russian tenor Sergei Skorokhodov made a fine Lyric debut as Fenena’s lover Ismaele.

The Lyric Opera Orchestra played splendidly throughout, particularly the brass and woodwinds.  Carlo Rizzi conducted with fine Verdian style, and gave an exciting, propulsive version of the score.  Rizzi also brought a fine delicacy to quiet moments—there were subtle moments in both the overture and in “Va, pensiero” that I hadn’t heard before.

Unfortunately, the production was not up to the level of the music making.  There was an obvious attempt in both set and costumes to make the period “timeless”, but what we got was a mishmash of structures and styles.  The only difference between the Hebrew scenes and those in Babylon are projected writings on the wall—a passage from the Torah for the Hebrews and Assyrian cuneiform for Babylon.

I was completely baffled by the costumes from the famed and distinguished designer, Jane Greenwood.  While I liked the color contrast between the Hebrews in black and white and the Babylonians in bright reds, everything looked tacky and ill-constructed.  The Babylonian soldiers’ first entrance was risible—they wore what looked like red pajamas with inverted “V” hats that reminded of Darth Vader.

Nabucco’s entrance costume looked like a Santa suit without the requisite white beard.  Michael Yeargan’s set was rather general but effective.  I was quite disappointed in the destruction of the altar of Baal, which involved merely turning over a table.  Duane Schuler’s lighting was effective throughout.

Stage director Matthew Ozawa did a fine job of moving the massive choruses effectively, though there was a lot of “face front and sing.”  His best work came in Abigaille’s confrontation with the mad Nabucco, where he made great use of the giant staircase leading to the throne and provided some deeper interaction between characters.

Despite these production quibbles, it was a grand night of Verdi singing and playing.  It was also a fine reminder that early Verdi can be just as powerful and exciting as his later masterworks when in the right hands.  It is interesting that Lyric has just announced its 2016-17 season, and there’s no Verdi or Puccini to be found!

Photos: Cory Weaver

  • merveilleux

    When DeShong sang the Verdi Requiem (with Paul Groves & Co) in New Orleans in May ’15, I was shocked by the pungent lows -- it was far earthier than Garanca’s more ethereal mezzo in the recording from LaScala. It was a voice of precision with smooth transition between registers. She, I would guess, has a few Amnerises, Ebolis, and the like in her future.

    Great review!

    • steveac10

      I see DeShong as more of a Horne type than a late Verdi mezzo (which which Horne coped at best). While she has an impressive top, the real glory of her voice is on the low end. Plus, despite its size, she can move her voice like crazy. I’m looking forward to her rumored Arsace at the Met (and hope the rumors don’t really mean she’s a cover +1 for some other mezzo).

  • DeShong is a fine singer; noting for Henson Keys that she is a mezzo, not a soprano.

  • Porgy Amor

    Thanks for this, Henson; I’ve already shared it. Sounds like a great night. The excellent Belosselskiy is Ukrainian, though (he did study in Russia).

  • phoenix

    uh-huh

  • chicagoing

    The original season announcement indicated that Nabucco at LOC would be the Daniele Abbado production seen at the Royal Opera House (and also shared with La Scala and Gran Teatro del Liceu) but that planned changed and what we are seeing is a revival of a past production.

  • WindyCityOperaman

    Re the LOC broadcast last Saturday -- they need a better coordination between the house and broadcast booth . . . the announcers keep yakking and the music has already started; this happens a lot. You probably won’t hear that during the rebroadcasts in the summer (even though I feel the audio isn’t as good as opposed to live). Serjan was terrific in such an ungrateful role but Lucic had intonational flaws.

  • grimoaldo

    “Zeljko Lucic(‘s)… entrance scene was a major anti-climax”

    The libretto calls for Nabucco to ride his horse into the temple at his first entrance as an act of desecration. Zaccaria sings “He does not even dismount from his furious charger!”
    The only time I remember seeing a production where they actually do this is this 1981 performance from the Verona Arena --

    entrance of Nabucco and retinue from 24:58
    even though the steed Renato Bruson is on is not a “furious charger” it is a very tame horsie led on by grooms.
    Nabucco is one of my favourite operas to see live because of the wondrous march with the banda that plays all the way through it and the noisy cymbal crashes, bass drum thumps and snare drums in the orchestra throughout. It is just not the same on any kind of recording or broadcast you don’t feel all that percussion vibrate through your body as you do when you are in the house.
    But this is a very nice and noisy performance of the march from Rome conducted by Muti with the super Csilla Boras as Abigaille (saw her do the part at the Kennedy Centre a while back) and the amazing Leo Nucci --

    March at 30:10. The whole performance is worth watching.

    Thank you for the review, it has inspired me to while away part of another snowbound day by listening to different versions of that march, about twenty times so far, I would never get tired of it.

    • tiger1

      When I saw Nabucco in Warzaw in 2004, Nabucco arrived on a horse.