Verdi’s ‘Nabucco:’ Blood, Thunder And Grand Singing

Sarasota Opera’s 1995 production of ‘Nabucco’ has been revived with baritone Stephen Gaertner in the title role of the blasphemous Babylonian king who seeks redemption. (Photos by Rod Millington, Sarasota Opera)
By Arthur Kaptainis

SARASOTA – With which of his 28-odd operas does the active Verdi repertoire begin? Some might propose No. 10, Macbeth, from 1847, though it is usually heard with revisions from 1865. Others will push the chronometer back to Nabucco, the young master’s third outing, of 1842. I think almost everyone present on March 2 for the opening of a run at the Sarasota Opera would agree that this blood-and-thunder Biblical epic is a good night out.

The libretto by Temistocle Solera trades in many of the tropes familiar from Verdi’s later works: an exotic setting, a dynamic chorus that seems part of the cast, a grand historical narrative that is both animated and complicated by familial and amorous rivalries. The story in this case concerns Nebuchadnezzar, the unstable Babylonian monarch who progresses from blasphemous assumption of godhood to undignified house arrest and (spoiler alert!) conversion to the true religion of the Hebrews.

The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, delivered by budding professionals in the Sarasota company’s studio and apprenticeship program, was a marvel of pure tone and lyric curvature. It won an extended ovation.

These long-suffering people are embodied most famously by the chorus – a happy situation in Sarasota, where the chorus is built of studio artists and apprentices, which is to say, budding professionals. Many were the rousing fortissimi during this three-hour-plus evening. “Va, pensiero,” by contrast, was a marvel of pure tone and lyric curvature, for which credit is owed both chorus master Roger L. Bingaman and conductor Victor DeRenzi. Needless to say, there was a traditional encore after an equally traditional extended ovation.

It was interesting to experience the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves (as “Va, pensiero” is also called) in its context. Far from being self-contained, the anthem is followed by a rebuke from the high priest Zaccaria, who exhorts his enslaved followers to quit their “cowardly” nostalgia trip and prepare for the destruction of their oppressors. Set in a quarry where the hardship is palpable, this third-to-last scene seems dramatically apt in its own right and not as loaded with Risorgimento significance as it is generally deemed to be.

The painterly sets, storybook costumes, and striking simplicity of the production remain true to the libretto’s stipulations.

The opera has other highlights, which were reliably made to seem so by director Martha Collins, a veteran who abides by the philosophy of this conservative house by withholding ideological exegesis and remaining true to the stipulations of the libretto. The simplicity in Sarasota can be striking. Imagine: a central staircase from the top of which the main characters enter memorably and proceed to the nexus of action downstage center.

Special effects – the bolt of lightning from on high that smites Nabucco and the sudden shattering of the statue of Baal – were in keeping with the retro Sarasota ethos. Painterly sets (including a relatively compact realization of the Hanging Gardens) and storybook costumes (designs are mostly blue and white for the Hebrews and gold and bronze for Babylonians) beguiled the eye without distracting from the action. Perhaps a measure of the success of the production is that the plot seemed clearer in performance than in a conventional synopsis.

Gaertner’s ruthless Nabucco is later heart-wrenching in his humiliation.

Of course, Nabucco needs quite a cast, which Sarasota Opera provided. In the title role we heard Stephen Gaertner, a baritone of ringing tone and positive stage presence who realistically (which is to say, not too frenetically) conveyed Nabucco’s post-blasphemy breakdown but also the pathos of his humiliation. There are passages in Part 3 (the acts are called “parte”) that bring to mind the heart-wrenching pleas of Rigoletto.

Another baddy with a sympathetic streak is Abigaille, Nabucco’s supposed daughter but in fact the issue of a liaison between one of his wives and a slave. This warrior usurps the throne to exact revenge on the Hebrew officer Ismaele, whom she loves, as well as Nabucco’s legitimate daughter Fenena, whom she resents both for the obvious reasons and because Fenena’s affection for the self-same Ismaele is reciprocated. Did I mention that Fenena, despite her status as regent, has sided with the Hebrews?

Ludicrous on paper, the triangle seemed psychologically plausible when Rochelle Bard as Abigaille poured out her heart in the great scena that opens Part 2, detonating some killer high Cs in the process.

Rochelle Bard, impressive as vengeful Abigaille, detonated some killer high C’s.

What an actress! Her tough dramatic-soprano tone contrasted nicely with the fruity mezzo-soprano of Lisa Chavez as Fenena. As for Ismaele, this character is often footnoted as a rare case of a lead tenor who lacks a decent aria. Ben Gulley, with his heroic sound and spirited acting, made the part seem central enough.

No one could call hardboiled Zaccaria a sympathetic character, but Kevin Short embodied his sectarian zeal with a bass voice of range, gleam, and focus. All the singers were aptly balanced with the orchestra, led by DeRenzi with a keen ear for the ample color young Verdi – contrary to accepted wisdom – elicited from the pit. Rests and stressed chords were smartly timed. There were inevitable delays for scene changes, but momentum did not flag.

Of course, this house knows its Verdi, having presented all the surviving works intended for performance in a cycle that ended in 2016. This production is based on the 1995 original as designed by Jeffrey W. Dean. Surely Nabucco will return to Sarasota before the 2040s. Perhaps the opera will nonetheless remain semi-canonical because the title character, despite his conversion late in the drama, remains something less than a hero. Anyone willing to overlook the tragic flaw will enjoy this vigorous and straightforward staging.

Nabucco continues at Sarasota Opera through March 24. For tickets and information, go here.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.

Bass Kevin Short embodied the sectarian zeal of Hebrew high priest Zaccaria with a voice of range, gleam, and focus.