Arts Desk

Last Chance: Washington National Opera’s Nabucco, Reviewed

Earlier this week, we reviewed the Washington National Opera's production of Werther. Also currently on stage is the opera's production of Nabucco, which has a pair of remaining performances.

Now in its third week on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage, the Washington National Opera's first ever production of Verdi's Nabucco has had some time to settle into its groove. By last week, the cast seemed confident, hitting the limits of its performance potential and delivering an enjoyable rendition of the classic biblical redemption saga. Nabucco, based on the sixth century B.C. sacking of Jerusalem and enslavement of the Jewish people by Babylonian King Nabucodonosor (Nebuchadnezzar in English), was Giuseppe Verdi's third opera. Following a libretto by Temistocle Solera, the biblical drama employs a love story and the politics of repression and redemption as its narrative arc, a poignant message for a Northern Italy then under the thumb of an unwanted Austrian monarchy. Debuting on March 9, 1842 at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Nabucco went on to secure Verdi's place as a fixture in the realm of Europe's musical heavyweights.

Philippe Auguin's orchestra didn't disappoint the ears last week, delivering a flawless performance, with piccolo and horn parts shining through as exemplary. While the entire cast sang well, at time individual performers could've stood to  crank their voices up to 11. Even the otherwise bold singing of baritones Franco Vassallo (Nabucco) and Burak Bilgili (Zaccaria) was slightly less robust than it could have been when sword-brandishing and crowd-rallying demanded masculine boom. Sean Panikkar and Geraldine Chauvet, as the lovers Fenena and Ismale, sang beautifully, particularly in duet.

Volume was no problem for bass (and D.C. native) Soloman Howard, as the High Priest of Baal, and Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross, as Abigaille. Despite earlier criticism of her weak lower register, Boross delivered a powerful performance. No stranger to her role as the tragic Babylonian slave who becomes a queen—she took on the role at Teatro dell'Opera di Roma last year for Italy's centennial—she dominated the stage, filling the hall with brobdignagian vocals while she portrayed a convincing understanding of her character's emotional evolution.

Director and set designer Thaddeus Strassberger's beautiful staging showed off Verdi's distinctly mid-19th century continental take on the ancient biblical tale. Strassberger's renditions of the interior of Jerusalem's vaunted First Temple and of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the world, are stunning. Bold colors and believable perspective make the audience feel like it's sitting in the corner of Solomon's temple or staring at a Babylonian ziggurat from the grand city's main concourse. His depiction of Zaccaria, kneeling and draped in his ceremonial prayer shawl, praying alone in a dimly lit dungeon, beautifully evokes the desolate nadir of the Jews' suffering under their Babylonian conquerors.

Some of Strassberger's devices were confusing, though. Employing a recurring cadre of uniformed, rifle-wielding Austrian soldiers, several pairs of tuxedo- and gown-clad ballroom revelers, and a liveried lamplighter, he suggests a play-within-a-play to the audience. But the idea was vague until the third act, which showed "Va Pensiero" sung as if from backstage, with Strassberger's vivid scenery replaced by behind the scenes scaffolding (at one point, an elderly man sitting a couple of rows in front of me turned to his wife after watching the ballroom crowd waltz across the stage, exclaiming, "I'm so confused!").

"Va Pensiero," the repressed Israelites' call for deliverance from their foreign oppressors, was pretty, but didn't do what it could to communicate their plight or hopefulness. The tune flowed, but the opera's actual characters shared the stage with Strassberger's created ones, and thus seemed split between the real audience and the imaginary one. The squad of Austrian soldiers, who despite the orchestra-provided cadence couldn't seem to keep in step, awkwardly brandished their rifles when the 19th century component of WNO's cast joined in with their ancient-world counterparts as "Va Pensiero" got underway.

The significance of "Va Pensiero"—its use as an anthem for Italy's independence and unification movement, the Risorgimento—is the stuff of popular legend, equating the Hebrew slaves' longing for freedom with the Italian desire for independence from Franz Ferdinand's empire. When Nabucco debuted, Milanese audience members supposedly sang along with the cast as a way of expressing their displeasure with Austrian rule. But recent scholarship suggests that it may be no more than a tall tale.

"Va Pensiero" returned with renewed vigor at the end of the performance, when Boross shushed the audience's applause to begin the encore of the famous chorus. Italian supertitles appeared above the stage, encouraging members of the audience to sing along, but not many people took the bait. The performers' singing was very nearly inspiring, but its potential to create a musical-emotional nexus was quashed by lack of audience enthusiasm. Strassberger's production contained another quirk or two, but in large part it was as musically engaging, gloriously colorful and dramatic as I've always imagined operas ought to be.

As for fostering patriotism, hope, or whatever it is you're supposed to feel when a chorus strikes up "Va Pensiero," WNO made a good effort. The hauling out of the tricolori (red, white, and green banners and a Savoy seal-bearing Italian flag) made it easy to forget that Silvio Berlusconi nearly destroyed the Risorgimento's legacy over the past decade.

The Washington National Opera performs Nabucco Friday, May 18 and Monday, May 21 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. $25-$300.

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