Friday, February 12, 2016

The chorus is the star in "Nabucco" at Lyric Opera Chicago

Act I opening chorus
Photo: Cory Weaver
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Verdi's 1842 Biblical melodrama "Nabucco" ("Nebuchadnezzar") was the composer's first big hit. As Evan Baker observes in his program notes for Lyric Opera of Chicago's revival of their 1997 production (which runs through February 12), the opera "scored a rousing success at Milan's Teatro alla Scala and sealed Verdi's reputation." Anyone seeing "Nabucco" for the first time in this dramatically inert production, though, might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about.

Things get off to a promising start, with a rousing rendition of the dramatic and tune-filled overture by the orchestra under maestro Carlo Rizzi, followed by an electrifying performance of the opening chorus ("Gli arredi festivi") in which the Hebrews pray to Jehovah to spare their temple from Nabucco's invading Babylonian army. The power and precision of Chorus Master Michael Black's singers suggests exciting things to come, but the fact that they're stuffed uncomfortably into a shallow playing area in front of the massive columns of Michael Yeargan's set proves to be more predictive.

Act II, sc. 1
Photo: Cory Weaver
Lumbered with a set which appears identical to the 1997 original and was therefore probably a scenic fait accompli, director Michael Ozawa, making his Lyric debut, seems unable to give his cast much to do except stand in one place, face downstage and sing. They do that quite well, and some of them even manage to create vivid characters in the process, but overall the static nature of this production tends to drain most of the drama away.

Which is a shame, because on paper "Nabucco" is pretty red-blooded stuff. Loosely based on Old Testament texts, it's the story of Nebuchadnezzar's conquest and exiling of the Jews and his subsequent conversion to Judaism following a curse from Jehovah for his sacrilegious arrogance. Librettist Temistocle Solera takes considerable liberties with both the OT and history, though, by adding a romantic triangle involving Fenena (Nabucco's youngest daughter), Abigaille (his eldest daughter), and Ismaele (a Jewish soldier), as well as a backstabbing power struggle between Abigaille and Nabucco. The story delivers passion, violence, and rapid plot reversals in quantity, all accompanied by powerful music that illuminates character even as it dazzles.

Tatiana Serjan
Photo: Andrew Cioffi
From a purely musical point of view, in fact, nearly everything about this "Nabucco" is impressive, starting with the work by the chorus. Verdi assigns the chorus an important narrative role that has them on stage for much of the opera's length, switching between black-clad Jews and red-coated Babylonians. They get some of the opera's most memorable music, including the famous "Va pensiero" of Act III in which the exiled Jews long for their native land, and they do it up proud in this production, providing some of the most memorable moments of the evening. The chorus part of "Nabucco" is physically taxing, with frequent costume changes and music that sometimes pushes singers to the limits of their tessiture. The Lyric choristers deserve a musical Bronze Star for their splendid work here.

Things are a bit more uneven among the principal singers. Clearly the best performance of the evening is turned in by Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan as a fiery and compelling Abigaille. She handles the role's high drama and bel canto passages with equal assurance and radiates a dramatic energy that grips and holds one's attention. The night we attended, her entrance at the final curtain call was greeted with a standing ovation and well-earned shouts of "brava!"

Dmitry Belosselskiy and chorus
Photo: Cory Weaver
Ms. Serjan's fellow countryman, bass Dmitry Belosselskiy, is just as impressive as the prophet Zaccaria. His potent performance, with the chorus, of the aria "Del futuro nel buio discerno," in which he rouses the disheartened Hebrews with a vision of Babylon's downfall, was a highlight of Act III, and typical of his work throughout.

There's also solid (if less striking) work from Russian tenor Sergei Skorokhodov as Ismaele and American soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Fenena. Their characters are less well defined, although their singing is beyond reproach. Serbian baritone Željko Lučić's Nabucco, on the other hand, had a monochromatic, "phoned in" feel the night we saw it, and his voice lacked the presence of his fellow cast members.
Elizabeth DeShong and
Sergei Skorokhodov
Photo: Cory Weaver
Mr. Yeargan's sets, as noted previously, look rather actor unfriendly, but they certainly make for great eye candy, as you can no doubt tell from the accompanying pictures. The use of Hebraic script vs. Babylonian cuneiform as decorative elements to establish locations is a nice touch—and a necessary one, given the neutral and impersonal nature of the huge, rectangular arches that dominate the set. Jane Greenwood's costumes make smart use of color to immediately tell us whether we're looking at Jews (black and white) or Babylonians (red with black accents), but I found the floppy caps and Star Trek-ish uniforms of the Babylonian soldiers a bit too cartoonish. De gustibus and all that.

Still great music making rules the stage in this "Nabucco". In his program notes, Mr. Rizzi observes that "a conductor's greatest challenge in 'Nabucco' is creating a unity, rather than a stop-and-start idea of the opera; certain episodes don't flow easily into one another." You wouldn't know that from his interpretation, though, which delivers a dramatic through-line that the staging lacks. He and his musicians do exemplary work here and deserve heaps of praise.

"Nabucco" runs through Friday, February 12, at the Civic Opera House in Chicago. For more information: lyricopera.org

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