Review: Verdi-Year “Nabucco” – Leo An, Csilla Boross Are Magnificent in Inventive Production – Washington National Opera, May 15, 2012

On my most recent previous visit (2010) to the Kennedy Center for a Washington National Opera performance, I witnessed the revival of a Thaddeus Strassberger production of Thomas’ “Hamlet”, borrowed from another company and conducted by Placido Domingo. In that performance, South Korean baritone Leo An sang a comprimario role [see my review at  Michael Chioldi, Micaela Oeste Enrich Washington National Opera’s Theatrically Absorbing “Hamlet” – May 22, 2010.]

Two years later, Strassberger returned to create an important and impressive new production of Verdi’s “Nabucco”, which is already scheduled to be seen in other American cities. Leo An, the Horatio in Strassberger’s conceptualization of “Hamlet” sang the role of  Nabucco at only one of the new production’s performances – the one I attended. (Italian baritone Carlo Vassallo was cast for the rest.)

[Below: Baritone Leo An as Nabucco; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Placido Domingo’s ties with the Washington National Opera are in the past. However, Strassberger is creating a new production of Verdi’s “I Due Foscari” to open the Los Angeles Opera’s 2012-13 season, starring Domingo (who, in his exploration of the baritone repertory, is expected to add the Nabucco to his record-breaking list of roles perfromed).

The Strassberger Production

Obviously designed with the Year 2013 – the bicentennial if Verdi’s birth – in mind, the new production is an important contribution to the live performance of “early Verdi” operas (those written before  1852’s”Rigoletto”, the opera considered his first great masterpiece).

The inspiration for this “Nabucco” production appears to have been influenced by a year that concept director Strassberger spent as a visiting artist at Milan’s La Scala Opera House. There, he was impressed by the legacy of the artisans that created and painted the set and scenery designs for historic Scala productions of the past.

[Below: Abigaille (Csilla Boross, right) one of two of Nabucco’s daughters in love with the king’s enemy Ismaele (Sean Panikkar, center), displays her anger at his rejection of her affections; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

At the same time, his ideas of the role of the audience for live opera performance evolved. “Nabucco”, which premiered  at La Scala in 1842 appeared at a time and place when opera audiences comprised a much larger percentage of the population interested in the arts. The audiences of that time were especially passionate about attendance of live operatic performances (no “new media” existed, of course) and new works became major community events.

“Nabucco” is associated, both historically and in legend, with the Italian Risorgimento, the mid-19th century drive for the national unification of Italy. Much of the opera is about the aspirations of a people to rid themselves of occupying foreigners.  At the time of its premiere, much of Northern Italy, including Milan, was part of the Austrian Habsburg Empire, whose soldiers were garrisoned in important Northern Italian cities.

Strassberger came across a handbill from an early “Nabucco” performance which stated that Austrian soldiers –  if they appeared in uniform – would be admitted free to the opera. From this, Strassberger developed the concept of upper class and noble Austrians attending the opera, including a group of uniformed Austrian soldiers. Three levels of theater boxes are placed at the side of the stage. In some of the orchestral passages in the overture and a latter act prelude that evoke contemporary dance rhythms, the Austrian soldiers and their girls in ball dresses danced mazurkas, waltzed and gavotted to Verdian melodies.

[Below: Ismaele (Sean Panikkar, left) expresses his love to the Assyrian Princess Fenena (Geraldine Chauvet); edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

As the Israelites of Act I assemble onstage, soldiers and their girls scamper into the boxes, immersing us immediately into the complexities of the “Nabucco” plot.

The Opera’s Story Line

Although many of us are familiar with the “Nabucco” story, it is instructive to recount it in the context of Strassberger’s ideas. Two Assyrian princesses (both recognized by Nabucco as his daughters, although one is born of a slave mother) are in love with the Israeli envoy, Ismaele. Because he is an Israeli, his choice of either of the Baal-worshiping princesses would create a religious crisis within his community, but the princess he chooses converts to Judaism (unbeknownst to her father, Nabucco), which changes the dynamics of the situation.

Nabucco has appointed his daughter Fenena (Ismaele’s beloved) as regent, enraging Abigaille and the High Priest of Baal, the latter worried about maintaining the kingdom’s religious purity. Nabucco had been incapacitated by a heaven-sent lightning strike after an ill-advised blasphemous utterance. But ultimately, Nabucco’s recovery of his senses, the revelation that Abigaille has poisoned herself, and reconciliation of the various antagonists permit the opera’s ending on a less stressful note.

In itself, the plot does not seem subversive, nor was it considered so by the Austrian censors who governed what could be shown onstage in Milan and elsewhere in their empire, but the chorus of Israelis yearning for their homeland – Va pensiero – in time became one of the anthems of the movement for Italian unification and expulsion by force of the Austrians.

[Below: Nabucco (Leo An, center) names his daughter Fenena (Geraldine Chauvet, front, second from left) as regent, as Abdallo (Jeffrey Gwaltney, front left) looks on; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Cpera.]

I even find the opera’s plot, certainly as staged by Strassberger, as less opaque than some regard it.

I myself am convinced that there is a backstory in which Envoy Ismaele’s physical charms not only attract both princesses on his diplomatic mission to Babylon, but are used by him in intimate conquest of each of them. Nor do I regard the idea of Middle Eastern religious leaders interfering in the politics of the ruling classes as inconceivable.

If the Assyrian and Israeli gods smite down their adversaries before the audience’s eyes, and Jehovah becomes personally  involved in the mental illness and restored mental health of the Assytian leadership – well, I don’t require of “Nabucco” a level of plausibility that I don’t expect of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”.

The Vocal Performances

Although Leo An’s only previous appearances at Washington National Opera were in a minor role, he proved an impressive Nabucco, with a powerful, full-bodied baritone voice.

Performing the role of Nabucco’s often estranged daughter Abigaille was Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross. In a role that many regard as one of the most difficult in the soprano repertory, with its leaping intervals and coloratura passages, Boross dispatched it with apparent ease. She brought a sweetness and sensitivity to the many soft passages that made the character, so often portrayed as hard-hearted and vengeful, seem vulnerable, and, in a way sympathetic.

The duets between Nabucco and Abigaille foreshadow the many famous baritone-soprano/father-daughter duets of Verdi’s later operas. An’s and Boross’ voices fit beautifully together.

[Below: Abigaille (Csilla Boross, right center, seated on throne) grants an audience to the High Priest of Baal (Solomon Howard, left, in red robes); edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Turkish basso Burak Bilgili, whose Nilakantha and Ferrando I have admired [see my reviews of the respective roles at Leah Partridge’s Splendid “Lakme” – Florida Grand Opera, Miami: February 27, 2009 and  Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009] was a solid Zaccaria, handling his three quite different arias effectively.

Pennsylvanian Sean Panikkar, the Ismaele, was particularly impressive. Over the years his voice has grown in size, as evidenced in his recent portrayals of Kodanda [see Loving “The Last Savage”: Over the Top Menotti Charms at Santa Fe Opera – August 5, 2011] and of Narraboth [see Lindstrom, Grimsley, Glassman Gleam in Sensuous, Searing San Diego Opera “Salome” – January 28, 2012] and he appears ready to take on lead roles on major opera house stages.

Other noteworthy cast members included French mezzo-soprano Geraldine Chauvet as Fenena and Soloman Howard as the High Priest of Baal.

[Below: Abigaille (Csilla Boross, left) is condemned by Zaccaria (Burak Bilgili, right); edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Unique Features of the Strassberger Production

Throughout the evening, the Kennedy Center audience is reminded of the significance of the opera to the Lombard Italian audiences during its first season in Austrian-occupied Milan.

Perhaps Strassberger’s most unexpected idea was the reversal of the point of view of audience and stage for the most famous part of the opera, the chorus Va Pensiero. As the notes that presage the chorus are heard, we see that we, the audience, are backstage.Stagehands and seamstresses are wandering about, performing their various tasks.

The back of an orb that is being lit is on ropes and will appear to the theater audience as the moon. A set of risers show in the distance on which members of the chorus begin to take their places..

As the piece proceeds, the various backstage folk began to take notice, and one can see the patriotic implications of the piece take hold of them. After the chorus, we return to the normal point of view, but one senses an uneasiness among the Austrian soldiers – at one point they appear at stage left with rifles pointed.

[Below: Zaccaria (Burak Bilgili, center, holding staff skyward); edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

At opera’s end, Leo An, the Nabucco, steps to the footlights for a well-deserved solo curtain call. As he leaves the stage, Csilla Boross, the Abigaille, comes out for her ovation as well.

But Boross does not leave the stage. She begins to sing  Va Pensiero and the chorus’ words (in Italian) are shown on the Supertitles. Boross indicates she wishes the audience to sing along, as all the members of the cast and chorus come onstage to join in the festivities.

Philippe Auguin, music director of the Washington National Opera, conducted. Maria Eugenia Antunez was Anna and Jeffrey Gwaltney was Abdallo.

The luxurious costumes were by Mattie Ullrich. The director of lighting was Mark McCullogh. As choreographer, Diane Coburn Bruning possibly had more to do for this production than anyone in the history of the opera. The truly beautiful sets were the creation of Strassberger himself.

I believe the Washington National Opera production to be ingenious and insightful and recommend it unreservedly. I hope to experience it again in later appearances in other American cities.

See also: Fink, Valayre and Aceto in San Diego Opera’s Exceptional “Nabucco” – February 20, 2010.