The Seattle Opera has an established tradition of mounting opera productions in which the key principal roles are double cast. This permits the opera company to maximize the number of performances on Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees, when demand for tickets is at its strongest.
For Verdi’s “Nabucco”, the Seattle Opera selected pairs of artists, each to perform four of the eight scheduled performances, for the roles of Nabucco, his fatally ambitious stepdaughter Abigaille, and Zaccaria, the religious leader of Nabucco’s enemies, the Hebrews.
I have already reported on the company’s first performance in the series [see Review: Mary Elizabeth Williams’ Beautifully Sung Abigaille, Deep Casting Enrich New “Nabucco” – Seattle Opera, August 8, 2015].
Weston Hurt’s Nabucco
This review is of the second performance in which Texas baritone Weston Hurt assumed the role of Nabucco, with Italian soprano Raffaella Angeletti as Abigaille, and German bass Andreas Bauer as Zaccaria. Each of these principals presented a competent portrayal, often varying stylistically from their first evening predecessors (Gordon Hawkins, Mary Elizabeth Williams and Christian Van Horn).
I was particularly impressed with the Nabucco of Weston Hurt, famous for his diction and his sympathetic reading of the characters he portrays.
His Nabucco’s physical bearing exuded regal authority up to the moment he was thunderstruck and from the moment when his reason was restored to him, and his time of trial was truly poignant.
[Below: Weston Hurt as Nabucco; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Raffaella Angeletti’s Abigaille
Raffaella Angeletti, assuming the role of his illegitimate stepdaughter Abigaille, captured the destructive relationship between herself and her mother’s powerful husband.
Angeletti has the range and power to encompass the vocal demands that Verdi’s score requires of any Abigaille, that many consider one of opera’s most difficult soprano roles.
[Below: Raffaella Angeletti as Abigaille; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Andreas Bauer’s Zaccaria
Also impressive was Andreas Bauer, who is heir to the great basso cantante style of vocally portraying the Verdi bass characters like Zaccaria who so eloquently evoke moral authority.
Zaccaria is an extraordinary role, and it is the mark of a great bass such as Bauer to be able to sing each of his three big arias (and both verses of the first aria’s cabaletta) competently (and sonorously).
[Below: Andreas Bauer as Zaccaria; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Two of the principal roles were not double cast – that of the young Hebrew, Ismaele and the person with whom he has fallen in love, Fenena, legitimate daughter of Nabucco, half-sister of Abigaille. The formidable duo of Russell Thomas and Jamie Barton sing the roles in all eight performances.
Russell Thomas’ Ismaele
Russell Thomas, who 13 years ago was a Seattle Opera Young Artist, is a rising star who is in world-wide demand for the spinto tenor roles that comprise so much of the traditional opera repertory.
Seattle Opera audiences saw Thomas in the role of Foresto in Verdi’s “Attila”, the opera in which “Nabucco’ conductor Carlo Montanaro made his Seattle Opera debut [see Reveling in Early Verdi: Relyea, Garcia, Vratogna, Palombi in Montanaro’s Uncut “Attila” – Seattle Opera, January 14, 2012].
With a voice that continues to grow in power, Thomas demonstrated that the role of Ismaele, often assigned to tenor voices of lighter weight, benefits from a having a large-voiced Verdian tenor perform it.
[Below: Russell Thomas (center) as Ismaele; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Jamie Barton’s Fenena
Jamie Barton, named 2015 recipient of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award, is already recognized as an international star of opera.
Barton’s rich mezzo was a strong presence in the several ensembles in which Fenena takes part. Fenena’s last act aria Oh, dischiuso e il firmamento! was sung by Barton with a beauty that will be long-remembered.
[Below: Jamie Barton as Fenena; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Carlo Montanaro’s Musical Performance and Francois Racine’s Stage Direction
I had commented in my review of the previous night’s cast, that the new production of “Nabucco”, which placed the opera orchestra in mid-stage, rather than in a pit in front of the stage, was a revelatory innovation.
As a reviewer, I wouldn’t usually recount an opera’s plot, particularly one that can seem opaque to those unfamiliar with it. I would argue, however, that the Seattle Opera staging enhances the storytelling.
The big chorus, representing at various times Hebrews or Assyrians, would cluster behind the orchestra, except when singing Va pensiero, the most famous passage in the opera (and arguably the most famous Verdi composition of the 1840s) when it assembled in front of the orchestra (utilizing the extension of the stage resulting from covering over the orchestra pit).
The principal singers in virtually all of their appearances sang in front of the orchestra.
These changes – as to where principals, chorus and orchestra are located in relation to each other and to the audience – have both acoustical and dramatic impacts.
The first impact was to center the audience’s attention on Verdi’s orchestral score, which some may discount as primitive, but from which Conductor Montanaro’s sympathetic leadership of the Seattle Opera Orchestra, produces a brilliant sound.
The opening chorus evokes the terror of the threatened destruction of the Temple of Solomon. In Racine’s lively staging the chorus members run in one by one and assemble behind the orchestra.
Throughout the opera, the space just to the rear of the orchestra is the province of the chorus – never massed as an oratorio-like monolith as had been the custom in so much of the opera staging late into the 20th century. Instead, choristers are individual actors who happen to sing (beautifully and with accomplished precision) simultaneously.
[Below: members of the Seattle Opera chorus costumed as Hebrews; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
The stage area in front of the orchestra becomes the place where the principal singers interact with one another. Here the opera’s dramatic content plays out and, I would argue, becomes rather less muddled than can be the case with traditional theatrical staging.
What is going on? Fenena and Abigaille, as all of Babylon knows, are sisters (although we learn what Abigaille has learned secretly that she is product of her queen mother’s cuckolding Babylon’s King Nabucco with a slave, and that Nabucco knows this as well).
Ismaele and Fenena, like Romeo and Juliet from enemy camps, have each saved the other in a hostile situation. Nabucco, not recognizing that Abigaille leads an enemy faction, declares himself a god and is struck by a thunderbolt, temporarily losing his reason, thereby playing into Abigaille’s treacherous scheming. But Nabucco recovers his reason, reconciles with Fenena and the Hebrews, and repudiates the Babylonian god, Baal.
The Verdi of the 1840s, like his colleague and mentor Donizetti before him, enhances dramatic situations by exploiting traditional Italian operatic conventions – arias and ensembles – in innovative ways. The drama in “Nabucco” is not what happens to Nabucco, nor to Abigaille, nor to Fenena and Ismaele, but how they record their emotions at any given moment by means of wonderfully conceived arias, duos, trios, sextets and concertati.
[Below: Nabucco (Weston Hurt, left) reconciles with his daughter Fenena (Jamie Barton, right); edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
What Racine does so elegantly is to stage these ensemble pieces on the stage in front of the orchestra in ways that engage the audience and advance the plot.
Take “Nabucco’s” most famous concertato, the rondo S’appressan gl’istanti in which Nabucco, then Abigaille, then Ismaele, then Fenena, then the four remaining principals (Zaccaria, Anna, Abdallo and the Gran Sacerdote, together with the full chorus) repeat the main theme, while everyone who has sung before them sing accompanying phrases.
Racine’s staging is masterful. Everyone is, one at a time, expressing the thought that “something ominous is going on”. By itself, the information is hardly dramatic, but with music expertly composed by Verdi for principals, orchestra and chorus and each artist’s actions choreographed by Racine, it has a stunning effect.
We don’t go to “Nabucco” to learn Ancient Middle Eastern history. We go for the music.
Robert Bonniol’s Projections
In commenting on Robert Bonniol’s projections, I’ll start by noting a scene in the final act in which the projection of an enormous image of the Babylonian god Baal towers above the back part of the stage, reminding me somewhat of the monster in the Night on Bald Mountain episode of Disney’s film Fantasia.
At a point when Nabucco repudiates the god Baal and embraces the god of the Hebrews, the image begins a rapid process of disintegration. I found this to be an effective and very theatrical use of projections to enhance the storytelling.
In general, though, I found the Bonniol projections to be less than successful, as if they were a separate activity being presented by the McCaw Theater, in which the Seattle Opera performs, rather than an integral part of a “Nabucco” production.
More often than not, Seattle Opera’s innovations in the rapidly evolving field of projections are praiseworthy. The projections – in conjunction with the ideas for organizing orchestra, principals and chorus – provide us with a blueprint for the successful launching of worthy early Verdi operas that are undeservedly unfamiliar.
One imagines Verdi’s “I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata” or “Il Corsaro” or “Giovanna d’Arco” or “I Masnadieri” or “La Battaglia di Legnano”, beautifully mounted with notable singers, attractive costumes, and exciting projections, produced by Seattle Opera with virtually the same formula as this performance of “Nabucco”.
I recommend this production, with either cast, to all lovers of Italian opera.