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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Opera Review: Breaking the Chains

Nabucco comes to Opera Philadelphia.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Power struggle: Abagaille (Csilla Boross) confronts Nabucco (Sebastian Catana)
in Act I of Verdi's Nabucco. Photo by Kelly & Massa Photography © 2013 Opera Philadelphia.
Since its premiere at La Scala in 1842, Verdi's third opera Nabucco has been weighed down by its most famous number: the Act III chorus "Va pensiero" sung by the imprisoned Hebrew slaves as they endure the Babylonian Captivity. The chorus, itself a rallying cry of the Italian risorgimento movement in 19th century Italy tends to outshine the actual opera--and its political and historical importance can outweigh the effectiveness of the opera itself.

Thaddeus Strassberger's handsome production, which bowed Friday night at the Academy of Music is the season opener for Opera Philadelphia--as well as that company's first Nabucco. A co-presentation with Washington National Opera and Minnesota Opera, the show solves the "Pensiero problem" by embracing the opera's off-stage history and influence. Mr. Strassberger moves the action of the piece to 1842. At stage right, two boxes of Austrian aristocrats take in what is presumably the work's premiere. Guarded by five rifle-toting soldiers, these opera-goers check their librettos, sip champagne, and act bemused at the Biblical blood-and-thunder playing out upon the stage.

This pantomime bit does not distract from the opera itself, mounted in a handsome production that would have made Cecil B. DeMille proud. Old-fashioned costumes, painted trompe l'oeil scenery and archaic stage effects reproduce the Old Testament miracles that drive the plot forward. More importantly, this old-school theatrical approach puts the focus squarely on the opera's core message: the repentance and transformation of the Babylonian king Nebachudnezzar (the titular Nabucco) and the villainous, power-hungry Abagaille.

Sebastian Catana was a commanding presence as Nabucco, tracking the King's progress from conqueror to madman to penitent over the course of four acts. His dark baritone is not the prettiest of instruments, but is ideal for those passages when Nabucco is angry or simply out of his mind. The Act IV prayer (delivered in a handsome wrought-iron jail cell) was one of the most powerful parts of this performance, as he managed to create the character's change of religious beliefs by strictly following Verdi's vocal line.

If the title role of Nabucco is difficult, his wicked stepdaughter Abagaille is even more demanding. Csilla Boross was a potent presence from her first entry, soaring to heights of soprano dementia in this near-impossible part. Ms. Boross navigated steep vocal intervals and changes of temperament, singing throughout with a clean tone and incisive approach to the character's growing insanity. She got better as Abagaille rose to power, and was terrifying and icy in her big Act III confrontation with the weakened, deposed Nabucco.

The third anchor of this show is the Hebrew prophet Zaccaria, (Zachary) played with gusto by bass Morris Robinson. Mr. Robinson's deep, rich low notes and impressive presence made this prophet a force to be reckoned with, an iron lion who is the spiritual heart of the show. Expressing his devotion with profound utterances, he also found moments to be warm and fatherly as the leader of his oppressed people.

With these three impressive leads, the lesser roles in Nabucco tend to fall by the wayside. However, tenor Adam Diegel (Ismaele) and soprano Margaret Mezzacappa (Fenena) were a strong pair of lovers, in what is surely the most incidental romance in any Verdi opera. Musa Ngqungwana's physical performance as the High Priest of Baal is also to be commended, limping onstage with a hunchback and two walking sticks of unequal height.

Corrado Rovaris led a brisk, muscular performance, taking slow tempos only in the "Va pensiero" chorus. The chorus (essential to a successful performance of this show) sang at an artistic peak throughout the show. In a short coda, the singers' bows to the audience were interrupted when Ms. Boross hurled her flowers back at the shocked aristocrats. She then led the principal cast and chorus in a very slow a cappella reprise of "Va, pensiero". (This was an addition to the original score, and it served to underline Mr. Strassberger's political message. As soldiers aimed their rifles at the singers, the players unfurled Italian tricolors emblazoned with "VV" and "VERDI." The composer's plea for freedom and homeland resonated even more powerfully than before.

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