FGO offers a worthy performance of Verdi’s “Nabucco”

By David Fleshler

Maria Guleghina stars as Abigaille in Florida Grand Opera's production of Verdi's "Nabucco." Photo: Justin Namon

Maria Guleghina stars as Abigaille in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Nabucco.” Photo: Justin Namon

The wrath of Jehovah, the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews and a Biblical love triangle all came to the Arsht Center stage in Miami, as Florida Grand Opera opened an admirable production of Verdi’s Nabucco Saturday night. 

The opera, which tells the story of the oppression of the Hebrews by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco), provided the 28-year-old Verdi with his first major success, giving him the confidence and support to produce the incomparable works that would follow. If Nabucco lacks the overpowering drama and humanity of Verdi’s mature works, it abounds in melody and in the crackling energy that shoots through the composer’s operas. Also, in this production at least, the audience got a chance to sing too.

The opera could have equally been called Abigaille, for its focus on the slave brought up as Nabucco’s daughter, whose unrequited love for a Hebrew leads her to seek comfort in royal power by usurping her father’s throne. For this famously difficult part, FGO snagged the highly regarded Russian soprano Maria Guleghina, who has made a specialty of the role, singing it at the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and other great houses.

In Guleghina’s portrayal, Abigaille took on a seriousness and complexity that made her sympathetic from the start, giving the role more depth than that of a frustrated, power-mad villain. Once in power, however, she luxuriates in the perks of office, being carried on a litter and enjoying incense, jewels and the entertainment of snake handlers.

If her high notes weren’t all there—and singing this role for years would take a toll on anyone’s voice—she gave her all in the role’s aggressive, strident cries for revenge, such as the confessional aria “Bien io t’invenni,” skillfully managing the role’s drops from high notes to dusky low ones. But what was most striking about her performance were not the big declamatory moments, but the more intimate ones. One of the highlights of the evening was her singing of “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno,” a meltingly lyric performance in which a sweeter, gentler Abigaille reveals herself.

The title role went to Dario Solari, a man with the vocal equipment and stage presence to give life to the Babylonian king. His regal tone and bearing made him a convincing war leader. In what may be the opera’s most striking and unforgettable melody, “S’appressan gl’istanti,” Nabucco plots the destruction he will hurl on his enemies, and Solari’s smooth, lilting style brought a real Verdi tone, full of both lyricism and menace. The Uruguayan baritone also brings out the king’s ultimate humanity in the final part of the opera, singing with golden warmth as the arrogant ruler turns into a father desperate to save his daughter’s life.

Few operatic overtures produce cheers, but under conductor Ramón Tebar the FGO ensemble gave such a blazing, razor-sharp account of Verdi’s fiery opening that the ovation was deserved. Throughout the performance, the orchestra could be counted on to deliver all the Verdi thunder, while providing sensitive support to the singers.

The chorus plays a big role in this opera, and under chorus master Michael Sakir they delivered a lot of the night’s drama and pathos. Verdi give the chorus the opening music and the singers effectively expressed their dread and panic at an imminent Babylonian invasion. Later the male members confront the traitorous Ismaele with crisp, menacing words that rise through a swift and threatening crescendo. And of course they get the most famous tune in the opera, “Va pensiero,” delivering an expressive, well-balanced, tonally rich performance of this pining for a lost homeland, ending effectively on a long-held pianissimo. (Tebar then turned and conducted the audience in an encore of Verdi’s most famous chorus. After that, back to the opera.)

Stage director Leigh Holman kept the action clean and simple, with details that enhanced the music and drama rather than distracting from them. Particularly effective was the direction of the brutality of the Babylonian soldiers toward the Hebrews, although the performance probably could have dispensed with their screams and let the music handle that.

The sets are a bit different from the elaborately designed temples and palace halls audiences might have expected. Set designer Thaddeus Strassberger, who had worked at La Scala, the fabled Milan opera house that gave the world premiere of Nabucco in 1842, attempted to create sets that would recall vibrant contemporary stagings of Verdi’s time. And so the sets consisted largely of evocative painted backdrops of fluted columns, massive Babylonian statues, a ziggurat and palm trees that would have represented the height of grand opera design in the mid-19th century.

The role of the prophet Zaccaria can run the risk of being a bit irritating, as he spends the opera nagging and preaching to the Hebrews. The bass-baritone Kevin Short brought the necessary commanding sound and presence to the role. Despite the burden of playing an Old Testament prophet, he was never ponderous, singing with expressive lyricism and agility as he lectured and encouraged the Hebrews.

Ismaele doesn’t have quite the high profile of most tenor roles. But the Uruguayan singer Martin Nusspaumer, an FGO Young Artist, made the most of the part, bringing an appealing, youthful voice to the role. The tenor brought a leading-man excitement to his voice as he expressed his love for Fenena and pleaded for forgiveness from his fellow Hebrews.

As Nabucco’s daughter Fenena, the mezzo-soprano Mabel Ledo brought a rich, effortlessly projected voice to the part, with a poised, sweetly phrased account of “Oh dischiuso e il firmamento,” her aria as she prepares to be stoned to death.

Nabucco is not an opera likely to send you from the theater reeling from its dramatic power. The plot is creaky, and while much of the music is effective, it’s not always up to the standards of Verdi’s best work to come. But it is a worthy and rarely heard opera, full of action and melody, and this may be your only chance to hear it in South Florida for a long time.

Florida Grand Opera’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco continues Jan. 26-Feb. 1 at the Arsht Center in Miami and Feb. 6 and 8 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. Susan Neves will sing the role of Abigaille Jan. 26, 29, 31 and Feb. 1, 6 and 8. Nelson Martinez will sing the role of Nabucco Jan. 26, 29 and Feb. 1. fgo.org; 800-741-1010.

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Sun Jan 26, 2014
at 12:42 pm
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