San Diego Opera presents Verdi’s “Nabucco”


San Diego, Sunday, February 21.

By David Gregson

“Nabucco” is early Verdi. Very early Verdi, in fact, and his first big success. You can hear some Donizetti, Bellini and even some Haydn in there somewhere, but you can also hear the birth of a new composer and a new kind of opera.

The Babylonian tyrant of the opera’s title makes his entrance as a standard baritone heavy, but after he’s struck by lightning, he begins to sound an awful lot like Rigoletto. The megalomaniacal slave girl, Abigaille (falsely believed to be Nabucco’s daughter), makes her entrance sounding like three different sopranos whose genes have been fused by one of those telepod matter transmitting machines from “The Fly.” Within a few years she will be Lady Macbeth.

It’s all there – including a terrific chorus that has so much to sing that “Nabucco” joins The People Are the Heroes Opera Club, of which there are several famous Russian examples. The chorus even gets what I dare say is the opera’s one hit tune and the only one that anyone really remembers, “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate” aka The Chorus of Hebrew Slaves. It became a sort of national anthem for the reunification of Italy during Verdi’s time.

Fortunately for us, Verdi liked Temistocle Solera’s libretto enough to set it to music. The project pulled the composer out of a downward fear-of-failure spiral. Yet the story has many standard elements – long, priestly pronouncements, a love triangle, etc. – all of which seem rather dull and even un-dramatic today. But where the libretto does have drama, Verdi makes the most out of it.

And I must confess, with the omnipotence of Jehovah and the liberation of Jews being so prominent in what amounts to a pseudo-religious Judeo/Christian spectacle, I would not like to see it made into an in-flight movie.

The people are indeed the heroes in this San Diego Opera production which opened last night in Civic Theater. Chorus Master Timothy Todd Simmons has whipped the Hebrews and the Babylonians into fine shape. There are, according to The New Grove, “Babylonian and Hebrew soldiers, Levites, Hebrew virgins, Babylonian women, magi, Lords of the Kingdom of Babylon, populace, etc.” I am certain even the “etc.” were terrific, although the hit tune somehow did not get encored – which has happened at almost every “Nabucco” I have ever seen.

Next in the heroic lineup come conductor Edoardo Müller and the San Diego Symphony. I can’t imagine this opera successfully produced here without Müller back on the podium again. He kept everything moving along forcefully, and never missed an opportunity to bring out passages of hidden lyricism in the score.

The character of Nabucco starts out as an oppressor of the Jews and then declares himself a God, but with some shocking help from Jehovah, he has a radical conversion. Serbian baritone Željko Lučić was supposed to take the part but withdrew for “personal and private” reasons. American baritone Richard Paul Fink stepped in at the proverbial last moment and memorized the role only few weeks ago. Last night marked his debut as Verdi’s first important baritone hero/villain.

I have admired Mr. Fink in the past (especially in Wagner), but to me he sounds like a real Verdi baritone – and we need more of those. He has a wonderful, full voice that fills your ears. Fink works hard to get the character’s many facets: imperious one moment, frail and frightened the next. And ultimately regal. He will get the role in his bones, probably by the end of this run.

Nobody can really sing Abagaille, apparently. The only wildly exciting interpretation I know of is one I never saw – the “fat Callas” on a 1949 recording from the Teatro San Carlo, Naples. Wow! That’s when she had it all vocally: the crazy two-octave leaps, the dramatic ferocity, and, when called for, the tender lyricism.

So we must be thankful for French soprano Sylvie Valayre who looks great and gets though the role with considerable authority, however effortful. I was reminded of some comments made by NBC commentators during the recent men’s figure skating competition at the Vancouver Olympics. As the world’s greatest skaters took to the ice, these unseen judges would talk about a certain “tightness” in the moments that, frankly, most of us cannot easily discern. Valayre may know Abagaille backwards and forwards, but she did not always seem totally “free” in it or to be reveling in the character or its vocal challenges.

San Diego Opera got itself an excellent American bass baritone to fill the sandals of the Hebrew prophet, Zaccaria, to whom Verdi has given so much to do. And American tenor Arthur Shen adds lyricism and urgency to the part of Ismaele, the nephew of the King of Jerusalem. He’s there for the love interest, of course, and to give the piece a tenor. He has fallen in love with Nabucco’s daughter, Fenena, the wonderful Israeli (for real) mezzo-soprano, Susana Poretsky. As you might expect, Abagaille has eyes on Ismaele too. It’s never a healthy situation but where would opera be without it?

The much beloved soprano Priti Gandhi was in there somewhere as Anna. A dear Indian friend of mine always wants to know how she’s doing, and in his mind, Priti is virtually starring in the opera, but aside from the line “Deh, fratelli, perdonate!” I would be hard pressed to say very much about her singing to her large fan club. It’s just not a very large role vocally! But we still love her anyhow.

The “Nabucco” is costumed tastefully by Jane Greenwood and Marie-Louis Waleck along historical epic movie lines, although the Michael Yeargan sets are very modest. No hint of the extravagant Babylon of D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” anywhere in sight. There are rectangular columns, rear-screen projections, and the special effects are pathetic, especially the fall of the statue of Baal (much better in the SDO production of 1981, which, yes, I did see). All we get is a painted cloth icon that plops in wrinkles to the stage floor. “Divin prodigio” indeed!

Stage director Lotfi Mansouri knows his business better than anyone, and this is Mansouri business as usual. Most of the mass movements were the standard stuff. But, honestly, the limits of rehearsal time and stage space would not permit much breaking out of the box. Patrice Chéreau has perhaps set a new standard of expectations for choreographed masses of people in his “From the House of the Dead” at the Met.

The lighting by Michael Whitfield was excellent – and, divine miracle, you could see everybody’s faces clearly from a distance.

San Diego Opera presents Verdi’s "Nabucco"

The Cast:
Nabucco / Richard Paul Fink
Abigaille / Sylvie Valayre
Ismaele / Arthur Shen
Zaccaria / Raymond Aceto
Abdallo / Joseph Hu
Fenena / Susana Poretsky

Conductor / Edoardo Müller
Director / Lotfi Mansouri
Scenic Designer / Michael Yeargan
Costume Designers / Jane Greenwood and Marie-Louis Waleck
Lighting Designer / Michael Whitfield
Wig and Makeup Designer / Steve W. Bryant
Chorus Master / Timothy Todd Simmons
Supertiles / Ian Campbell

Website: San Diego Opera

Performances
Saturday Feb 20 7pm
Tuesday Feb 23 7pm
Friday Feb 26 8pm
Sunday Feb 28 2pm

Civic Theater

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