Mostly excellent cast lifts Palm Beach Opera’s static “Nabucco”

By David Fleshler

Mark Rucker in the title role of Verdi's "Nabucco," which runs through Monday at Palm Beach Opera.

Absent for 25 years, Verdi’s Nabucco returned to Palm Beach Opera Friday with a mostly excellent cast, stark but dramatic sets and another fine performance by the company’s orchestra.

An opera isn’t mounted for a generation without a reason, and Verdi’s third opera has a creaking, preachy plot that ends with the Hebrew high priest telling the Babylonian ruler Nabucco, “In serving Jehovah, you shall be the king of kings.” But Verdi poured some great music into this musty libretto, and it was well served by this musically energetic production, which runs through Monday.

Rather than treating the opera as an opportunity for massive, intimidating sets filled with Old Testament props, the company used an effective, almost abstract Opéra de Montréal production with clean lines and a few iconic symbols. In the opening temple of Jerusalem scene, the setting consisted of steps, a few pillars and a menorah. As the scene moves to the Babylonian capital, there were more pillars, steps and the image of a mythical half-lion, half-eagle griffin. Dramatic lighting, which by the last scene illuminated the stage in eerie shades of orange and blue, helped make these austere sets work.

The gleaming, virile tenor of Adam Diegel was a highlight of the evening. Diegel, who gave a strong performance as Don José in last season’s Florida Grand Opera production of Carmen, appeared this season as Froh in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Das Rheingold. As Ismaele, the member of the Hebrew royal family who betrays his people for love, he brought an intense, muscular voice to his initial duet with Abigaille. Diegel also allowed an effective edge of desperation to creep into his singing as he pleaded with the Hebrews for forgiveness.

The title role went to Mark Rucker, the American singer who has made a specialty of the twisted, conflicted roles that Verdi created for baritones. Rucker’s voice is an instrument of great tonal beauty, but he didn’t just upholster every aria with vocal velvet. He brought out the king’s desperate humanity, with touches of rawness and vulnerability, as he pleaded for his daughter’s life and as he lamented his fallen state in Oh di qual onta aggravasi questo mio crin canuto. For performances Saturday and Monday, the role will be sung by Sebastian Catana.

As Abigaille, the love-triangle loser who temporarily takes the Babylonian throne, the soprano Paoletta Marrocu was the weakest of the leading singers. The furious aspect of the role brought an unnecessary harshness to her voice, with top notes that were forced and shrill, as in her initial aria when she enters the temple of Jerusalem. At times, as in the second act aria Anch’io dischiuso un giorno, she sang persistently flat. But she was one of the few on stage who attempted to act, seizing Ismaele’s chin in her hand as she sang an aria of love and contempt. For performances Saturday and Monday, the role will be sung by Csilla Boross.

Adam Diegel as Ismaele and Laura Vlasak Nolen as Ferena in Palm Beach Opeta's "Nabucco."

Laura Vlasak Nolen’s rich, effortlessly produced mezzo-soprano was another vocal highlight of the evening. As Nabucco’s daughter Fenena, she didn’t do much acting, but her voice was a worthy counter to Diegel’s tenor in their first act duets, and she was a standout in the fine ensemble section toward the end of the second act.

Naturally Verdi assigned the role of the old Hebrew priest Zaccaria to a bass, who has the job throughout the opera of lecturing the Hebrews of the need to have faith in God. Despite his youth, the Ukrainian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy brought Old Testament gravitas to the role, holding the stage with the ponderous authority appropriate to a ancient religious leader. Although his vibrato was often too wide, his voice was sumptuous and resonant in arias such as Vieni, o Levita. Although the role of his Babylonian opposite number, the High Priest of Baal, is a smaller one, the bass Harold Wilson was an effective vocal counterpart.

One unfortunate aspect of the production was the static, stodgy stage action by director Guy Montavon, with slow, processional movements of the chorus creating a tone that was almost ceremonial. Even dramatic moments, such as the invasion of the Temple of Jerusalem and Nabucco’s entrance into the temple, lacked excitement. Too often, the opera consisted of soloists and chorus members — many literally holding spears— standing and facing the audience, giving the impression of an oratorio with costumes. And for all the significance the opera places on who gets to wear the crown of Babylon, the actual royal headgear was the flimsiest prop imaginable, looking like a court jester’s cap with fake jewels.

The opera company’s fine orchestra has become the most reliable element of its productions. Under the assured conducting of artistic director Bruno Aprea, the ensemble brought out the youthful energy of Verdi’s score, with tight, crisp playing, and a rounded, full-bodied sound. Particularly effective was the swaggering pomp of the king’s entrance into the temple. The chorus handled its important role with weighted, well-phrased power, from the opening expressions of fear of Assyrian attack to the opera’s most famous melody, Va, pensiero, which ended with a beautifully balanced, sustained pianissimo.

Palm Beach Opera’s Nabucco repeats 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. Monday.; 561-833-7888.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Mostly excellent cast lifts Palm Beach Opera’s static “Nabucco””

  1. Posted Dec 12, 2010 at 10:57 am by Steve

    Despite this narcissistic review, my family and I will be attending this opera today. In an age where this art addresses concerns of limited funding and a deteriorating audience, support is essential. While some of this is insightful and informative, other content displays a desire to drive people from the opera house to the Sunday sports bar. “looking like a court jester’s cap with fake jewels.” was inappropriate.

    There’s a review on your review!

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Sat Dec 11, 2010
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