By Giuseppe Verdi
Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Lori Dana
In many ways, Verdi’s Nabucco defines “Grand Opera”. Sweeping in musical scope, as well as in visual scale and creative concept; Nabucco was Verdi’s first “big hit”. The young composer had the libretto virtually thrust upon him by a promoter at La Scala who believed in Verdi’s theretofore unrealized potential (and not incidentally, was looking to recoup his investment in Verdi’s two previous, unsuccessful La Scala productions.) The decision to pursue Nabucco turned out to be a game changer for Guiseppe Verdi. The success of this single opera elevated his reputation in the music world of his time, allowing him to build a career and a body of work that has now spanned more than two centuries.
The story of the invasion of Jerusalem and enslavement of the Hebrews by a Babylonian king (in English, Nebuchadnezzar), Nabucco‘s perceived religious theme may make some more politically correct audience members squirm a bit at first. It is important to remember that Verdi used the story to represent a universal concept. Verdi was a man whose work was never far removed from the politics of his day and themes of freedom vs. slavery, tyranny vs. democracy, and freedom through personal identity run strong throughout his work. Lyric’s interpretation of Nabucco has great relevance for contemporary audiences who are once again witnessing the rending of the Middle East over religious differences, a diaspora of the persecuted (to Europe) and the destruction (by ISIS) of monuments created by the same Babylonians portrayed in this Lyric production.
All of these considerations form a context for Lyric’s massive and magnificent staging of Nabucco. The musical foundation of the piece is, as always, the impeccable Lyric Opera Orchestra (here directed by Italian maestro Carlo Rizzi) and Chorus (directed by Michael Black.) In Nabucco, the chorus also has the distinction of being the star of the show. With 82 members occupying two thirds of Verdi’s score (and with the most costume changes of any characters in the Lyric production) the chorus is the entity that, with one voice, conveys and comments on the universal themes of the opera. Conversely, the smaller scenes featuring principal characters tie in a secondary tragic love story and move the plot forward. Both groups give memorable, magnificent performances. Nabucco‘s romantic sub-plot involves the king’s younger daughter Fenena (Elizabeth DeShong), who is being held hostage by the Hebrews in hopes of deterring her father from burning the temple of Solomon and the rest of Jerusalem to the ground. Fenena’s lover is Ismaele (Sergei Skorokodov), the Judean envoy to Babylon to whom she has been entrusted in her captivity by the Hebrew prophet Zaccaria (Dmitry Belosselskiy). Their love was forged during Ismaele’s previous captivity in Babylon, at a time when both of Nabucco’s daughters were vying for the handsome Hebrew’s affections.
Fenena was able to free Ismaele and returned to Jerusalem with him, leaving the spurned sister Abigaille (Tatiana Serjan), to harden her jealousy into murderous rage against Ismaele and his people. It is Abigaille, not Nabucco, who finally leads the Babylonian troops into the temple, destroying (she hopes) both her political and romantic rivals. The individual singers in this production give performances that are for the most part, beyond reproach. The cast’s trio of Russian artists (bass Belosselskiy, soprano Serjan, and tenor Skorokodov) is excellent. Nabucco represents the Lyric debuts of both men, and the triumphant return of Ms. Serjan, whose fiery interpretation of the ambitious Abigaille burns up the Lyric stage with emotional intensity and vocal perfection in much the same way that her Tosca did during her 2014-15 season debut. These are voices that move beyond technical prowess to being sensitive emotional instruments, giving genuine dramatic voice to their characters without sacrificing the glory of Verdi’s composition. There seems to be a dearth of strong bass voices in opera right now, so the stellar singing of Belosselskiy and American Stefan Szkafarowsky (as the high priest of the Babylonian god Baal) are particularly welcome. Ryan Opera Center members Laura Wilde (soprano) as Anna and Jesse Donner (tenor) as Abdallo add strong performances in the supporting roles. The one hiccup in this cast is Nabucco himself. Serbian baritone Želko Lučićs performance, though beautiful in tone, seems unnecessarily restrained, even for a character whose waning days encroach upon his kingship. Lučić does ramp up the intensity of his singing in the second half of the opera, but not to a level that fits his character’s circumstance. Surely a fading monarch whose throne has been usurped by an unqualified interloper (no spoilers here!) would respond with greater outrage and less resignation.
As has gratefully become its custom, Lyric Opera employs production values for Nabucco that are second to none. Set designer Michael Yeargan’s stripped down aesthetic will appeal to modern audiences; his set’s simple soaring pillars and sweeping staircase creating strong visual contrast using primary colors, plus black and white (a color scheme also reflected in the clean lines of Jane Greenwood’s costumes). The only ornamentations are calligraphic panels (Hebrew for Jerusalem and Cuneiform for Babylon) and a few simple, though dramatically scaled props that effectively create an environment of grandeur without diminishing the impact of Verdi’s music. Lighting designer Chris Maravich showcases his considerable skills in the creation of fluid panels, a combination of projections and lighting that effortlessly transition the audience from one scene to the next. Lyric’s Nabucco is a flight of the spirit, from the grandeur of its design to a perfectly moving performance of the iconic “Va, pensiero” chorus, it is stunning in every detail. This is a grand way to begin a new year and to celebrate a new era of Grand Opera in Chicago.
(“Nabucco,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through February 12 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)
Nabucco production photos by Cory Weaver and Andrew Cioffi.