Giuseppe Verdi's Nabucco (Nabuchadnezzar) returned to the San Diego Opera for the first time in 29 years Saturday night for a run of four performances at the Civic Theater in downtown. The house was (unexpectedly) packed with enthusiastic audience willing to miss the Winter Olympic broadcast and a UCSD basketball game for the chance to experience Verdi's rarely performed bel canto-on-steroid offering.
The story of the opera is a (highly inaccurate) historical fiction set during Israel's third captivity by Babylon (circa 587BC) and how the god of Judah delivered the Jews from their enslavement by striking mad the Assyrian king before prompting his conversion to Judaism. Needless to say, the real life story was quite different (it was the invading Persians who set Israel free and not the famous mad king of Babylon). It isn't a strictly biblical story either since Nabucco is the only character who appears in the Bible or the Torah. But there is no letting facts get in the way of a juicy story when it comes to opera. The plot is really driven by the (not so tragic, for a change) love triangle between Ismael, the Jewish commander, his beloved Fenena (the younger and wholly legitimate daughter of Nabucco, and Abigaille, her emotionally unstable warrior (half-) sister.
Lotfi Mansouri's production is a rather minimalistic traditional staging using the retractable set by Michael Yeargan along with imaginative lighting by Michael Whitfield to somehow managed to make the same basic three levels blue set an adequate stand in for anything from the Jewish temple to the Babylonian halls, a prison, and the bank of the Euphrates. Traffic control was very good as this opera requires the presence of the chorus in most of its scene. No human collision occurred though humbly dressed Fenena didn't always stand out very much from the Jewish crowd.
Musically this opera is something of an acoustically juiced-up bel canto show with the reputation for ending the career of its leading soprano. Sopranos who can and are willing to sing the vocally schizophrenic Abigaille, Nabucco's brutal elder (and rather illegitimate) daughter, don't grow on trees. This role demands both vocal heft (in order to be heard over the loud chorus) and florid agility through out her very wide range, and especially up top. It takes a special type of voice to be able to handle that... and one can hardly do better in this demented role than the French soprano Sylvie Valayre. The couple that sat next to me thought her voice quite horrible and I can hardly disagree with a straight face... It is a strange voice that, in this opera, isn't allowed much opportunity to show off its' still quite lovely middle register. The top ranges from moderately to hideously acidic (with the tendency to stray sharp of pitch when under pressure) and the bottom rather convincingly evil. And though it is plenty loud enough to cut through the occasionally ear-bustingly loud chorus, it isn't a hefty voice with a lot of body in it... though it is quite convincingly agile and remains in good dynamic control. Valayre goes further than just coping with all the notes Verdi requires. She can both vocally and theatrically act, the fact of which I enjoyed very much.
And, when you really think about it a bit, one can hardly ask any dramatic coloratura soprano to take up this notorious voice-killer of a role while she still has a beautiful and fresh voice! That Nabucco isn't a big box-office draw work that can guarantee stardom for the mastery of its leading lady surely doesn't help. One can't (and shouldn't) expect vocal beauty from this beastly (in many different manners) a part. Valayre delivered the drama, and that is the point of her role in this opera!
Especially impressive on opening night was American baritone Richard Paul Fink who replaced Željko Lučić for the entire run as Nabucco. You would never guess, based on his commanding reading of the title role on Saturday night that he had never sung the part before and had only started learning it 3 weeks ago. His effortlessly stentorian chorus-proof voice becomingly exuded kingship while his dynamic variation aptly rounded out the Assyrian king's human qualities. His acting came through even when viewed from as far away as the final rows of the balcony section. It was easy to believe this Nabucco in the height of his insanity as well as in the depth of his humiliation... regardless of how logically leaky the operatic plot actually is.
Israeli mezzo soprano Susana Poretsky and American tenor Arthur Shen were convincing as the harmlessly milder temper Fenena and Ismaele. American bass Raymond Aceto was a vocally fine though his tones a bit brighter and acting rather one-dimensional than what I would prefer for the role of Jewish high priest Zaccaria. Local favorites Joseph Hu and Priti Gandhi rounded out the good supporting cast as Abdallo and Anna.
The SDO Chorus started off a bit behind the beat though soon found its stride with the help of Maestro Edoardo Müller adroit flexibility from the orchestra pit. Their rendition of the famous Act III 'Va, pensiero' hushed the less than quiet opening night audience and elicited a roar of approval at the curtain for its flawlessly well nuanced vocal dignity. The San Diego Symphony Orchestra was heavy on majesty though at times solo instrumental passages were lost in the sonorous blare of the brass section (the cello strokes at the opening of 'Va, pensiero' and the fluttering solo flute when Solomon is invoked, for instants).
It was a good show that promises to get even better in later performances. If you are in San Diego and its vicinity this week and haven't anything scheduled for Tuesday, Friday or Sunday evening, stop by at the opera (Civic Theater in downtown) and catch a performance. This work isn't performed very often especially with this good a cast and staging. There are still plenty of good seats available!
* Production photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of the San Diego Opera
Remaining performances of Nabucco at the SDO: February 23, 26, 28 (m).
Recommended recording: DVD from Metropolitan Opera 2001 (Pons, Guleghina, White, Ramey)
More juicy insider tidbits on the SDO's Nabucco can be found on the company's Aria Serious Blog.