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