Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A splendidly realised contextual exploration of Verdi's Nabucco at LA Opera

First, there was the inexhaustible champion of opera, Plácido Domingo, taking on the title role. Adding to that, the powerhouse Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska made a sensational house debut as Abigaille. Under James Conlon's fervent conducting, the music utterly soared and, to tantalise, a resplendent feast for the eyes came courtesy of director and set designer Thaddeus Strassberger - LA Opera's new production of Verdi's Nabucco opened on Saturday with an array of outstanding attributes to win the audience's favour.

Plácido Domingo as Nabucco
The production comes via Washington National Opera, where it premiered in 2012 with later seasons at Minnesota Opera and Opera Philadelphia. It also came with an interesting twist. Strassberger has created a novel historical inset that uses the work's 1842 premiere at Milan's Teatro alla Scala as a point of reference in the presentation of its biblical story of religious tensions within which a complicated love triangle boils through.

While a few details in the historical facts are condensed and brushed over in Temistocle Solera's libretto, accompanied by Verdi's grand and tempestuous score, it became a symbol of Italy's subjugation under Austrian rule and a small ingredient that reflected the push towards Italy's unification. Rapturously received, Strassberger uses its perceived political undertones by placing his modern audience in the context of a 'reimagined' Milanese premiere at which distinguished foreign aristocrats in the audience watch on while a group of military soldiers, observed on stage at the beginning of every act, are at the ready should trouble emerge. It eventually does.

Monastyrska couldn't resist a condescending glance directed to her little well-heeled audience during her performance. Then, what came as a huge surprise to the actual opening night Los Angeles audience following the curtain call, there was a rousing uptake of the opera's most famous chorus number, “Va, pensiero", started by one voice, picked up across the stage, then open for all of us to sing. "Viva Verdi" bloomed on stage and the soldiers weren't happy. In its time, encores were not permissible by the Austrian authorities. But, regardless of the circumstances, the ingenuity of Strassberger's contextual exploration lies in how he uses Nabucco to press upon theatre's role in stirring political and social change. On the whole, Strassberger carries the concept off with an intriguing perspective and in impressive style, notwithstanding Act 3's embedded "Va, pensiero" being presented as a backstage view that unnecessarily interrupts its course.

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille
A three-tiered slice of La Scala edges the Dorothy Chandler proscenium, looking into each of the exquisitely detailed flats and backdrops that depict an architecture of impressive proportion, beginning with the striking coffered ceilings and weighty carved columns of Jerusalem's Temple of Solomon. Mattie Ullrich's eye-catching costumes display reams of vivid colour for the Assyrians with the Hebrews robed in creamy white, all of which glow evocatively under Mark McCullough's lighting design to give it the wonder of a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic, though with much less action.

Just as impressive were the individual performances on opening night. Tenor turned baritone Plácido Domingo never ceases to amaze (following opening night he conducted a matinee of The Pearlfishers). When Domingo made his first appearance well into the first act with his warriors, he arrived with a voice that rang with both firm authority and beguiling freshness. In previous baritone roles at LA Opera such as Macbeth in Verdi's Macbeth and Athanaël in Massenet's Thaïs, Domingo's masterful technique, intelligently shaded expressivity and staying power excelled.

Domingo was similarly impressive as Nabucco, the King of Babylon. Being amongst the finest operatic actors to watch, Domingo coloured his character's emotional range with conviction and subtlety, from stern leader to demented self-proclaimed god, a miraculous return to reason and subsequent conversion to Judaism. As Nabucco's introspection intensified, Domingo oozed with natural warmth, culminating in Act 4's splendidly sung prayer, "Dio di Giuda". If there was just a little of something needing in Domingo's performance, it was a desire for greater consistency when projecting thrilling power which happened to waver on occasion.

Morris Robinson as Zaccaria with LA Opera Chorus
That proved no issue for Liudmyla Monastyrska as Nabucco's illegitimate daughter of slave blood, Abigaille. Making a macabre entrance wielding a sword and slaying a Hebrew, Monastyrska also wielded a vocal instrument with hair-raising volcanic force and impressively nuanced expression. Contrasting fire and ice combined with a delicious, deep lustre, evenly edged top notes and plunges to a meaty low range, Monastyrska commanded the stage from the start. The vocal dynamics of Act 2's "Anch'io dischiuso un giorno" were especially outstanding and on full display as Abigaille first discovers the document that reveals her slave bloodline before blazing into "Salgo già del trono aurato" with her determination to seize the crown.

Strong resonating bass Morris Robinson was coercive as the high priest of the Hebrews, Zaccaria, his Act 2 prayer to god for the Assyrians to find their way to Jehovah in "Tu sul labbro" interpreted with a smoothly arching vocal beauty. In the face of her dominant sister, lush mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera gleamed consistently as Nabucco's true daughter Fenena. As Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem and together in love with Fenena, tenor Mario Chang, though complimenting her with appropriate warm-toned richness, faded in the lower seat of the voice. Gabriel Vamvulescu made solid work of a smaller role as the hunched over High Priest of Baal.

There are lashings of opportunity for Verdi's tremendous chorus work to take the spotlight but that didn't always translate into the hoped for dream of excellence - at times, the harmonies sounding underpowered and murky. The best came with a rousing Act 1 finale as the Israelites curse Ismaele and Act 4's "Immenso Jehova", leaving  “Va, pensiero" feeling soulful but lukewarm in comparison. In the pit, however, Conlon went to work enthusiastically and the adrenaline and variety of the score was realised with superb playing by the LA Opera Orchestra with some notably melting moments of brass.

If Verdi's Nabucco could rally its audience at its premiere, why not do so again? On show was more than enough splendour and expertise in Strassberger's Nabucco for an audience to willingly rise together in voice.

LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion , LA Music Centre
Until 19th November.

Production photos: courtesy of LA Opera

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