Two of Giuseppe Verdi's masterworks draw from ancient eras: With intoxicating realism and detail, Aida re-creates a rift between Ethiopia and Egypt, and an Ethiopian slave princess who's caught in the middle. In Nabucco, Verdi's first hit, which premiered 30 years earlier in 1842, there's a similar focus on captive royalty. The Hebrews at the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem enslave a Babylonian princess and then wait as her father, King Nebuchadnezzar (known as Nabucco), sets out to destroy them.
Both blockbuster operas have love triangles and an immensely powerful chorus, but critics consider Aida the more mature, musically complex work. Perhaps that's why it has become a repertory favorite, while Nabucco struggles for wider acceptance. Aida's oriental strains and elaborate Egyptian set pieces are irresistible. Hey, even Disney has usurped it for fun and profit.
Following Houston Grand Opera's first-ever production of Nabucco on Saturday, April 28, you have to wonder how Verdi's earlier work ever paled against Aida (which incidentally has been performed seven different times at HGO). Granted, there were a few jarring musical moments on opening night when the composer's bel canto leanings were muffled by the big forceful sounds now thought to be Verdi's trademark. Still, HGO music director Patrick Summers's soulful interpretation of the score, magnificently executed by the Houston Symphony, felt much more inspired than the version of Aida that opened the season last fall. Arias were electric, the drama never dragged, and the lead singers were astonishingly versatile.
Chicago Lyric Opera assistant director Thor Steingraber stages the production originally conceived by British director Elijah Moshinsky. The plot focuses on a power struggle between Nabucco, the Babylonian king, and Abigaille, a woman presumed to be his daughter, but who was actually born a slave. When the king leaves the throne to his daughter Fenena, Abigaille decides she wants it for herself. She takes the first step toward seizing the crown after discovering Fenena is freeing Hebrews imprisoned by Nabucco.
Angry because his people have shifted their allegiance to Abigaille, the king proclaims himself God. Shortly thereafter, he is struck by a thunderbolt and collapses into a delirious state. The rest of the opera explores how he regains his sanity and frees himself from Abigaille's captivity to save his daughter.
In the role of the Hebrew high priest Zaccaria, bass Samuel Ramey sounded extremely robust in the lowest registers, issuing forth slow, solid chants. By comparison, baritone Sergei Leiferkus sounded thin and stiff in the title role. But he loosened up, sounding particularly tuneful after the scene in which God's thunderbolt cut him down to size. In acts three and four, the acclaimed Russian singer brilliantly passed himself off as the equivalent of a wise, demented King Lear. With ear-soothing modulation, his melody lines graduated from a quiet despair at being held captive to a charged, willful determination to regain his kingdom and save his daughter.
Playing Abigaille, the Russian soprano Maria Guleghina offered a poignant blend of singing styles. Upon discovering her true identity, she regaled the audience with stylistically contrasting arias. In the first, she delivered forceful strains, pouring out hot anger and vengeful plans to conquer Nabucco. Then she began to pine away for the past, following the first aria with a softer, more tuneful complaint.
The most noticeable musical distraction of the evening occurred when Abigaille shared the stage with Fenena (mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella) and her lover, Ismaele (tenor Rafael Rojas), in the show's first ensemble. Guleghina's weighty soprano overpowered the lighter mellifluous sounds of Rojas and Pancella. These two were somewhat convincing as lovers, but Pancella looked a little uncomfortable during the first two acts. Her awkwardness couldn't have been helped by the tight fit of her shimmering orange dress.
Nabucco has some of the best choral music ever written. In act three, the HGO chorus, posing as bedraggled Hebrew slaves, took the stage by themselves during the famous "Va, pensiero, sull' ali dorate" ("Go, my thoughts, on golden wings"). The group issued its moving lament with angelic delicacy. This was the dramatic moment that first drew Verdi to Temistocle Solera's libretto. It was also the tune that reportedly brought unexpected applause from workmen hammering away inside Milan's La Scala theater during early rehearsals. Hearing them shout, Verdi knew he was on to something.
It's a good thing HGO finally brought the piece to Houston. For old-fashioned, hummable opera, Nabucco definitely beats Aida. This production attests to the fact that many old Verdi melodies have been hidden inside their jewel boxes for too long.
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