In Montreal’s Fine ‘Nabucco,’ Thoughts Fly To Curious Set

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The chorus of Montreal Opera sings 'Va, pensiero' from Verdi's 'Nabucco,' in a remounting of the  Thaddeus Strassberger production.  (Photos Yves Renaud, courtesy Montreal Opera)
The Montreal Opera chorus sings ‘Va, pensiero’ from ‘Nabucco’ in a remounting of a Thaddeus Strassberger production.
(Photos Yves Renaud, courtesy Montreal Opera)
By Earl Arthur Love

MONTREAL — “A Thirst for Power, A Thirst for Freedom” is the publicity slogan for the Montreal Opera’s current production of Verdi’s Nabucco, which opened here on Sept. 20.  There may be no better catchphrase, or indeed opera, that illustrates the current nationalistic aspirations of minorities around the world, including Scots, Catalonians, and Quebeckers.

Paolo Gavanelli as Nabucco, King of Babylon (Yves Renaud)
Baritone Paolo Gavanelli as Nabucco, King of Babylon.

Verdi’s third opera and first big success recounts the Old Testament story of the Israelites’ struggle for freedom from the conquering Babylonians in 586 BCE. An instant hit when it premiered at La Scala in 1842, Nabucco mirrored Italy’s aspirations at the time of the Risorgimento, when Austrians were ruling many Italians. The famous chorus “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (Fly, thought, on wings of gold) became a rallying cry, almost a second national anthem, for the Italians.

The Montreal Opera assembled a superb cast for this production.  On opening night, renowned Italian baritone Paolo Gavanelli brought a wide range of emotion and characterization to the role of Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzer). He used a deep, round, authoritative sound for his wrathful role in part one, set in Solomon’s Jerusalem temple. (Verdi divided the opera into four “parts” rather than acts.) In part four Gavanelli sang his penultimate aria, “Dio di Giuda!” (Judah’s God!), with subtlety and mesmerizing pathos.

Tatiana Melnychenko as Babylonian princess Abigaille (Yves Renaud)
Soprano Tatiana Melnychenko as Babylonian princess Abigaille.

Equally impressive was Ukrainian soprano Tatiana Melnychenko, who sang the mercilessly difficult role of Abigaille, Nabucco’s illegitimate slave daughter. Her role requires a voice that can span an enormous vocal range, and she delivered in spades. Her thrilling voice was clear, on pitch, at ease with the high notes, and she had no trouble free-falling to the low ones. She navigated the treacherous leaps of her opening scene with assurance and fire. Her voice is slightly raw but not shrill, perfectly suited to her perfidious role. It should develop more color and warmth as it matures.

As the prophet Zaccaria (thought to be modeled on Jeremiah), the young Ukrainian bass Ievgen Orlov had a gravelly voice that sounded weak and pinched in the upper range of his arias “Sperate, o figli!” (Be of good cheer, my children) and “Come notte a sol fulgente” (As night before the shinning sun). It gained depth as the opera progressed, and was melodious, full-bodied, and mature during the passionate “Tu sul labbro de’ veggenti” (On the lips of the prophets) accompanied by the six solo cellos.

Antoine Bélanger (Ismaele) Margaret Mezzacappa (Fenena) et Tatiana Melnychenko (Abigaille) in Verdi's 'Nabucco' at Montreal Opera 2014 (Yves Renaud)
Bélanger as Ismaele, Mezzacappa as Fenena and Melnychenko.

American mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa sang Fenena, legitimate daughter of Nabucco and also in love with Ismaele, with a clean, powerful, velvety voice. Canadian tenor Antoine Bélanger, a former member of Montreal Opera’s Atelier lyrique, the company’s training school, delivered a steady, authoritative Ismaele.Two current members of the school – soprano France Bellemare as Anna and tenor Pasquale d’Alessio as Abdallo  acquitted themselves well. And bass Jeremy Bowes, another alumnus, inched his way across the stage while crunched over on two staffs  in his portrayal of the High Priest of Baal.

The large, centrally important chorus, prepared by Claude Webster, sang with a glowing, unified voice. Supported by Italian conductor Francesco Maria Colombo and the Orchestre Métropolitain (Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Montreal orchestra), the chorus pulsed with energy and color; it offered a loving “Va, pensiero.” Colombo and the orchestra were also in top form. They kept the tempos flowing briskly and the intensity never flagged.

The production featured painted backdrops and anachronistic elements.
Strassberger’s play within a play concept incorporated loges suggesting La Scala.

However, the production, created by director-designer Thaddeus Strassberger, had its deficiencies. Co-commissioned by the Washington National Opera, Minnesota Opera, and Opera Philadelphia, the set was framed by tired, painted pasteboard backdrops, including Corinthian columns in Solomon’s sixth-century BCE temple, curtains painted with a Renaissance depiction of Aurora in her chariot (symbolizing the dawn of a new age?), and a neo-classical one of Daniel in the Lions’ Den. And were those “Roman” centurions in the Babylonian palace?

Other anachronistic touches included a winged eagle perched on a globe, whirling dervishes, and burkas on the ladies. Strassberger’s original staging (effectively remounted here by Leigh Holman) used the conceit of a play within a play in an attempt to depict the opening night at La Scala on March 9, 1842. Missing from the Montreal production – although seen elsewhere – was the round floating set that could turn and depict an audience on stage. Two tiers of loges to suggest La Scala, filled with supernumeraries, did make it to Montreal.

The production was enhanced by Mattie Ullrich’s colorful costumes, and Mark McCullough’s judicious lighting, remounted for Montreal by Jeffrey Allan Messenger.

At the end of the performance, the chorus reprised “Va, pensiero,” while the audience joined in with the help of surtitles. Afterwards one gentleman yelled, “Viva Italia!” No one cried out “Vive le Québec libre!”

Earl Arthur Love is the Montreal correspondent for www.concertonet.com, a feature writer for American Record Guide, and professional drummer. Formerly, he wrote for Opera Canada magazine while working as a speechwriter for the Government of Canada, in Ottawa.

The Thaddeus Strassberger production was co-commissioned by Washington National Opera, Minnesota Opera and Opera Philadelphia.
Strassberger’s production was co-commissioned by Washington National Opera, Minnesota Opera and Opera Philadelphia.

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