It is rare to find a subject that is as true and current in 6th century B.C. as it is in 1842; however, Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco profoundly mingles the Biblical tale of the defeat, enslavement, and exile of the Jews in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar with the plight of Verdi’s Milanese contemporaries. American director and designer Thaddeus Strassberger, keenly aware of the political and social ramifications of the opera, brings a bold new production to Washington National Opera’s first performance of Nabucco in its 56-year history. Featuring radiant musicianship from the orchestra, the soloists, and an outstanding chorus, opening night of WNO’s Nabucco was a fete of visual and aural mastery.
When Nabucco premiered at La Scala in 1842, northern Italy was tormented under unbearable Austrian control. Verdi and librettist Temistocle Solera (1815-1878) were able to support the ideals of the Risorgimento, or Italian independence, through the music and lyrics. Strassberger, a graduate of La Scala’s Accademia, stages an opera within an opera to illustrate the nationalism of the time. During the overture, supernumeraries and dancers dressed in 1840s garb participate in a court dance and take their box seats stage right. Strassberger selected a scenic artist whose artistic lineage runs back to those of Verdi’s time. This master teacher added majesty and depth to each scene through the elaborately painted sets.
Equal in majesty and depth to the scenery and stage production was the talent and musicality of the orchestra and singers led by conductor Philippe Auguin. From the beginning of the overture, the orchestra played with sincerity and technical power. The representation of the “whirlwind of the Lord” in the strings during the Act II overture was impeccable. The lead cast was well balanced; during ensemble moments individual voices were understood without being overdone. At the height of Nabucco’s madness and despair, he pleads for Fenena’s life in the duet with Abigaille, Oh di qual onta aggravasi questo mio crin canuto. Csilla Boross’ (Abigaille) interpretation was dripping with venom and derision. Although Abigaille is one of the most feared and revered soprano roles in the repertory, Boross was a force on stage. While understanding the limitations, one wishes for more presence in her lower registers. Both Franco Vassallo (Nabucco) and Sean Panikar (Ismaele) provided brilliant and vivid vocal performances. Vassallo’s voice took on more depth and resonance throughout the night, which highlighted Nabucco’s madness and frustration at his own imprisonment. Burak Bilgili (Zaccaria), Géraldine Chauvet (Fenena), and María Eugenia Antúnez (Anna) added superb performances along with Soloman Howard (High Pries of Baal) and Jeffrey Gwaltney (Abdallo.)
Any review of this performance would be lacking without mention of the exceptional chorus and their performance of the famous Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate. Verdi uses the chorus in Nabucco as another fully-fledged character. Eschewing collective emotions, like most operatic choruses, Verdi’s chorus creates suspense, fear, piety, love, and most of all longing. Strassberger’s setting of Va, pensiero was especially moving. During the scene change, the set and chorus are set up as though the audience is viewing the backstage with seamstresses, ballerinas, gambling men, and cast members. Still considered a de facto national anthem by many Italians, Va, pensiero is a powerful depiction of a lost homeland. “Fly, thought, on wings of gold; go settle upon the slopes and the hills, where, soft and mild, the sweet airs of our native land smell fragrant.” Performed in this way, it becomes apparent that the sentiment lives on and is relevant today as it was in 1842.
If it took Washington National Opera these 56 years before it found the right production of Nabucco, it was worth the wait. Fans of opera and theatre should not hesitate to catch one of the remaining performances on May 2, 5, 10, 13, 15, 18, and 21. For more production details visit www.kennedy-center.org/wno. David and Alice Rubenstein are the Presenting Underwriters of WNO. Generous support for WNO Italian opera is provided by Daniel and Gayle D’Aniello. Additional support for Nabucco is provided by The Dallas Morse Coors Foundation for the Performing Arts and by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.