Opera Philadelphia’s ‘Nabucco’ (1st review)

Jehovah vs. Baal, then and now

All we need is Boross (above) and a chorus.
All we need is Boross (above) and a chorus.

Everyone knows that Verdi’s 1842 opera Nabucco, based on the Babylonian conquest of ancient Jerusalem, was a broadly drawn metaphor for Austria’s domination of Italy at the time of its writing. Nabucco was the young composer’s third opera, his first of true greatness, but it’s uneven in ways that would fall away as Verdi matured.

In this new Opera Philadelphia co-production with the Minnesota Opera and Washington National Opera, director Thaddeus Strassberger constructs a play around a play in an effort to mask some of the drama’s weaknesses by building on the political overtones.

Strassberger places us within a 19th-Century production of Nabucco, with formally dressed Austrian operagoers actually observing the performers from the Academy of Music’s boxes (our beloved 19th-Century opera house serves the purpose perfectly). Austrian militiamen usher in each act.

Bar mitzvah party

The actual meat of the production is presented in a relatively traditional fashion, with Hollywood Biblical costumes and squared-off beards for the Assyrian characters. Strassberger moves a large cast around the crowded stage quite deftly, despite some ham-fisted moments.

For example, the Hebrews are first introduced with a Torah paraded around the stage as if this were some kind of ancient bar mitzvah, and a shofar thrust repeatedly in the air. We get it— they’re Jewish.

The colorful sets are meant to evoke Babylonian architecture, and they do— but in the manner of caricature. Strassberger, no doubt a meticulous researcher, captures the polychromatic feel of the epoch, but the execution is clumsy, with cartoonish detail. The sets look like they were designed by Red Grooms.

Strassberger may well take this as a compliment. So be it.

Agile Hungarian

The young cast is well balanced, with no glaring weaknesses, and one standout. Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross, in her company debut, is riveting in the role of Nabucco’s fiery daughter Abigaille, her agile and full-throated voice mated to an electrifying stage presence. Certainly, Boross is a name to remember.

Sebastian Catana’s depiction of the title role lacks menace and command in the early scenes, but his declawed Nabucco, in Act III, exudes a flesh and blood fragility that’s both touching and in character.

The rolling thunder that is the bass voice of Morris Robinson, portrayer of Zaccaria, High Priest of the Hebrew, is also a wonder to hear.

Memorable chorus

But the true vocal star of this show is the chorus— a masterstroke by Verdi that he would repeat often in subsequent operas, and which has remained a powerful inspiration for all opera composers who followed him.

We’re accustomed to popular operas that contain a memorable tune that everyone looks forward to, often sung by a tenor or soprano lead. But in Nabucco the big moment is the sublime chorus, “Va, pensiero.” How beautifully it sounded here, as longtime chorus master Elizabeth Braden scored a special triumph with singing of finesse and power, reinforced by typically exquisite pacing and lyricism from the orchestra led by Corrado Rovaris.

Dubious gods

All of these fine elements cannot totally rescue the essentially clunky dramatic vehicle that is Temisocle Solera’s libretto. Interesting relationships are conjured and allowed to drift; many of the characters are thinly drawn; and the action lumbers gracelessly in several key sections.

Especially dubious is the final act, in which an arbitrary exchange of deities occurs, via weird and improbable battlefield conversions. In this case, the Babylonian Baal falls to the Hebrew Jehovah, but either god seems OK with the notion of its adherents butchering the other god’s followers. Some things never change (grumble grumble).

Strassberger then guides the drama back to modern-day (that is, 1842) politics, with an unscripted reprise of Va, pensiero, for a cappella chorus. The genuine theatrical magic that Strassberger pulls off here, delightfully, took me by surprise in a way that I wouldn’t want to spoil for those yet to see this production. But it brilliantly re-establishes Verdi’s true dramatic genius in humanistic terms— as opposed to the falsely pious religiosity of Nabucco that would never reappear in his work again.♦

To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.
To read another review by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

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