Nabucco in DC: Confused, Splendid, and Creaking

United StatesUnited States Giuseppe Verdi, Nabucco: Soloists, Washington National Opera Orchestra, Philippe Auguin (conductor), Kennedy Center Opera House, Washington DC, 15.5.2012 (RRR)

Co-production with Minnesota Opera & Opera Company of Philadelphia

Direction and Sets: Thaddeus Strassberger
Costumes: Mattie Ullrich


Nabucco, King of Babylon: Leo An
Abigaille: Csilla Boross
Fenena: Geraldine Chauvet
Ismaele: Sean Panikkar
Zaccaria: Burak Bilgili
Anna: Maria Eugenia Antunez
Abdallo: Jeffrey Gwaltney
High priest of Baal: Soloman Howard

Picture courtesy Washington National Opera, © Scott Suchman

On the evening of May 15, 2012, I caught the Washington National Opera’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco, which had opened on April 28. When possible, it’s always good to avoid opening night (as a rule of thumb, the third night is ideal). In this case it was also good to avoid reading early reviews: All the vocal deficiencies noted in the Washington Post and elsewhere were nowhere in evidence at this point in the opera’s run. In fact, practically all of the principals excelled, most especially Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross in the key role of Abigaille. Not since the appearance of Anne Schwanewilms in Dvořák’s Stabat Mater last March (review here) have I heard a soprano of such power and command. At will, she easily soared over the combined forces of orchestra and full chorus.

Boross would have easily dominated the production had it not been for the strength of the other principals. Sean Panikkar, with his fresh tenor voice, easily filled the opera house as Ismaele. Turkish bass Burak Bilgili, who also sang magnificently and with great gravity in the Dvořák, was a solid vocal anchor as Zaccaria. Mezzo-soprano Geraldine Chauvet as Fenena was at her best in solos and her duets with Ismaele while voice, not quite as powerful as the others’, occasionally got lost in the large choral scenes. In this performance, the role of Nabucco was taken by South Korean baritone Leo An (who alternates with Italian baritone Franco Vassallo). Though he is not of imposing physical stature, An has the vocal heft to put across the role. One of the great joys of the evening was hearing the quartets, trios, and duos in which any combination of the above voices sang in. They were thrilling.

The concept of the production by Thaddeus Strassberger, the show’s director and set designer, was less thrilling. Strassberger apparently tried to capture what a production would have looked like at the time of this opera’s premier in the 1840s. What the sets most reminded me of was D.W. Griffith’s depiction of ancient Babylon in his great black-and-white silent film Intolerance, though less grand and with attractively muted colors. The costumes also had the same period feel and were stylishly done. The Israelites got to wear white. The Syrian troops had neat, appropriately martial costumes with flair. (I have no objection to outfitting the priests of Baal with Halloween scream masks, though it made hearing them very difficult, as the masks muffled their voices.)

available at Amazon
G.Verdi, Nabucco,
G.Sinopoli / Deutsche Oper Berlin
P.Cappuccilli, P.Domingo et al.

So far so good. There is nothing wrong with a replicated 19th-century interpretation of the Babylonian period. If Strassberger had played it straight, there is no reason why this could not have worked on its own terms. The problems arose because he chose to frame the entire production as if it were being seen by an 1840s audience in Milan to produce this effect. Downstage, right between three-dimensional Corinthian columns (making them real as opposed to the fictional two-dimensional flats depicting Jerusalem and Babylon), he created three tiers of opera seats. During the overture, the purported Milanese audience arrived, as if dressed for a Viennese ball, and awkwardly attempted to waltz its way through part of the overture before taking its seats. They were accompanied by a squad of Austrian troops, two of whom remained in the uppermost tier to observe and, apparently, be at the ready to quell any unruly Italians. All of this, of course, was an obvious reminder of the role this opera came to play, most particularly its “Va, pensiero” chorus, in the Risorgimento nationalist aspirations of Italians.

I fully sympathize that Nabucco is a creaky melodrama. Things simply happen, without the necessary dramatic development in preparation for them. Obviously, the director thought it would creak too loudly if played straight. However, the intention of the composer and the librettist was to affect us directly – no matter how imperfect the attempt. Therefore, framing this as a play within a play pulls us further away from the experience they were trying to create and turns it into something else. The resulting distance subverts the original intention.

In fact, it went on to subvert itself. Strassberger set the famous “Va, pensiero” chorus as if we were observing it from backstage of the 19th-century opera production. This meant that the chorus faced upstage, away from the audience. However, when it began singing, it faced toward the audience, downstage. This dramatic absurdity showed that Strassberger’s conception could not follow the logic of its own conceit. Perhaps his attempted time-warp, wrapping Babylon, Milan, and Washington DC all together, was meant to universalize the message of “Va, pensiero.” Instead, it merely created confusion.

In fact, from the program notes it appears that Strassberger is confused about the essential message of the opera. He states that, “vengeance and desire for retaliation against those who have wronged you are hallmarks of the reactions from both sides of the conflict in Nabucco.” Does this imply that Verdi meant a pox on both houses? If so, this is mistakenly reading multiculturalism back into Verdi’s time. The opera is unabashedly about the triumph of Yahweh.

In the end, the singing triumphed, even over Strassberger’s misconceptions. In addition to the principals, Soloman Howard sang and acted well as the High Priest of Baal, and Maria Eugenia Antunez was notable in the role of Anna. The Washington National Opera Chorus and orchestra were more than fine, as was the conducting of Philippe Auguin.

Robert R. Reilly