Opera Review: "Nabucco" at the Kennedy Center

Verdi’s dramatic opera gets a confident, nuanced staging by the Washington National Opera.

By: Sudip Bose

Nabucco was the opera that made Giuseppe Verdi--and yet, it nearly didn't come into being. The composer was just 27 years old in 1840, struggling to establish himself in the twilight of the bel canto era. His first two operas had flopped, yet his professional failure was nothing compared to the recent heartbreak of his private life--two infant children dead in successive years and a wife gone soon after, having succumbed to encephalitis. In this profoundly abject state, Verdi was ready to give up, to abandon his fledgling career.

Around this time, he received the libretto for an opera about the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucodonosor, or Nabucco), who conquered Jerusalem and exiled the Jews in the sixth century BC. If we are to believe Verdi's suspiciously romantic account, the composer refused to even open the text--so depressed was he--until one sleepless night, when his eyes fell at random upon the lines "Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate" ("Go, thoughts, on gilded wings"). Verdi's imagination took flight, and the opera he subsequently wrote was a massive success. He would write better operas, unequivocal masterpieces, but Nabucco made him a star.

The current staging of the work, a Washington National Opera co-production with the Minnesota Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, is the first in the WNO's history--not surprising, given the difficulty of finding a soprano to sing the role of the manic, bloodthirsty Abigaille. Such a singer must traverse an astonishingly wide vocal range, and she must sing with fury, venom, florid excess, sustained intensity. It isn't just a treacherous role. It's a potential voice killer.

The soprano Csilla Boross can certainly hit all the notes, but her Abigaille is of a different stock: more lyrical, tender, and humane than what one might expect. You could even say Boross is a beautiful Abigaille. But is that a desirable trait? After all, the character must convince us of her hatred not only for the Hebrews, but also for her rival, Fenena. She must drip with venom, with bloodlust. But Boross seemed to be holding back just a bit when the role called for more daring, vocal fireworks in the upper register. Though she later came into her own--in the cavatina "Anchi'io dischiuso un giorno," with its two-octave leaps, and in the crazed flourishes of "Salgo già del trono aurato"--what her performance lacked was naked wrath.

Something similar could be said of baritone Franco Vassallo's Nabucco. Missing was the element of megalomania, which allows us to understand his descent into madness. Vassallo sang assuredly, but his portrayal was just a bit too earthbound for my taste. This is a man, after all, beset by fits of grandiose irrationality. He must be vehement. He must be larger than life--so that his subsequent fall is all the more convincing.

The bass Burak Bilgili, however, was outstanding as the Hebrew high priest Zaccaria, his voice filled with gravitas in his double aria "Sperate, o figli . . . Come notte a sol fulgente," in which he pleads with the Hebrew people to remain resolute in the face of the Babylonian onslaught. Accompanied by the elegiac cellos, Bilgili's "Tu sul labbro de' veggenti" was also gorgeously wrought, conveying the anguish of a man who has become the voice and conscience of his people.

Conductor Philippe Auguin led a spirited, committed orchestral performance. And the chorus, ever-present in Nabucco, was superb, singing in harmony and in unison, raising up great, granitic walls of sound in one moment, weeping contemplative, sorrowful lines in the next. The "Va, pensiero" chorus, in which the enslaved Israelites long for their distant home, received its customary encore and a third hearing, as well, after the piece ended, sung a cappella by soloists and chorus--with the Italian lyrics projected as supertitles, an invitation for the audience to sing along.

This might have worked better in Italy, where the words "Oh, mia patria, sì bella e perduta" ("My country, beautiful and lost") continue to unite and inspire a people. But in Washington? The audience seemed to enjoy it, but for me, this post-production sing-along seemed to strike a false and heavy-handed note. The conceit was part of director Thaddeus Strassberger's larger plan to re-create the stage of Milan's Teatro alla Scala on the night of Nabucco's premiere, and thus link the show to Italian reunification politics. Given that northern Italy was then under the rule of an oppressive Austrian regime, some elegantly dressed Austrians were onstage throughout, playing the part of theater-goers. This framing device (creating essentially a play within a play) was at times distracting, especially during the "Va, pensiero" chorus, when Strassberger had his Austrian aristocrats blithely chatting away, stage right, while a group of Italian women, stage left, sewed the three parts of the tricolore (later unfurled at opera's end). As a consequence, during Verdi's hymn about freedom and enslavement, about the longing for home and the quest for human dignity, it was all too easy to focus not on the ethereal singing of the chorus but on the incidental action at the edges of the stage--something of a disappointment given the lavish spectacle of the production.

Nabucco is at the Kennedy Center Opera House through May 21. Tickets ($25 to $300) are available through the Washington National Opera's website.