Thursday, May 03, 2012

Nabucco at WNO

Washington audiences got a glimpse of a rare creature last Saturday night, a new WNO production, and of a local rarity, Verdi's Nabucco. Plot-wise, it's your usual "blockbuster" formula of warring historical factions (here Jews vs. Babylonians) and  political and romantic intrigue among the principles. While the supporting cast is poorly developed, the two protagonists provide some legitimate interest--the king Nabucco, who is both going mad AND seeking redemption for wanting to annhilate the Hebrews, and his faux daughter Abigaille, actually a slave, who takes advantage of the deteriorating King in a ruthless power grab. Unfortunately the plot they inhabit is a pale shadow of the intricate development found in Verdi's later historical masterpieces, and these interesting leads spend most of the balance of the play, as Downey puts it, unable to "decide whether they are villains or not."

In terms of musical interest, Abigaille towers over the rest of the cast. Verdi has written a fiery showcase of warrior princess music for this character that favors only a very small slice of sopranos willing to nut up and take it on. That Maria Guleghina has the part on virtual lockdown at the Met really says it all. To WNO's great credit, they have staffed the part here with the Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross, who serves up more thrilling, paint-peeling sound than the casts of several other offerings this season put together. One could quibble with some things--her attempts at the occasional but brutal lower register demands of the role sound a bit like me trying to sing Bass II, and she does not impress much in the slower, softer business (though that first aria is pretty pedestrian to begin with, if you ask me)--but she is without a doubt one of the attractions of the current season and almost singlehandedly brings to this Nabucco the vocal glamour and spark it needs.


Franco Vassallo's Nabucco got off to a rocky start, with a somewhat unstable, wooly sound, but he seemed to settle as the evening wore on and delivered a moving, finely phrased "Dio de Giuda!" in the fourth Act, and an effective finale. Everyone's favorite Narraboth of 2010(?), Sean Pannikar, turned up in the somewhat thankless role of Ismaele, love interest of Abigaille's sister "Fenena" and of Abigaille for like five seconds, (I was unclear whether he was dead or not for a while during Act 4). While losing some finesse points here and there, his ringing, honeyed sound continues to make a big impression.

Great to have Auguin in the pit again, as always. He presides over a lively reading and mostly keeps a firm hand on coordination as he drives the big ensemble scenes with rollicking tempi.

As to the production (um, if you care about that sort of thing in an opera production, SPOILERS AHEAD): Thaddeus Strassberger, who helmed the interesting WNO Hamlet of a few years back, returns for this Nabucco in a production essentially organized around "Va Pensiero"'s history as Italian revolutionary anthem. The central conceit is a show within a show--Nabucco presented as it might have been seen on the stage of La Scala in the 1840s, replete with period kitsch, proscenium boxes of Austrian-affiliated nobility, and pre-Act military displays. The spectacular kitsch of the actual production is generally very well done, with intricately painted sets, lavish colorful costumes, and miles and miles of beards.

And then, in the third Act, centered around Va Pensiero and Zaccaria's exhortation to the Hebrews, we get the money gesture--the proscenium we have been watching all evening so far is turned around, and we are looking out at the house as from backstage, where a revolutionary tableaux including seamstresses sewing the tricolore, intellectuals, etc. takes part in the great chorus. The sleight of hand is beautifully done, to be sure--the audience is struck by the feeling of being drawn out of the artifice of the play we've been watching and thrust into the intimacy of contemporary characters with contemporary aspirations. What had been perhaps a passing sense of the social and historical import of this music (remarkably sung by the WNO chorus one must add) is made real and powerful; the multiple layers of emotional resonance contained in the piece are stunningly illustrated in a way only really possible by using the performance itself.

So why did it ultimately ring false?

For one, the gesture is too small. This production would basically see the whole opera through the lens of one element cherry-picked later more as a piece of pop culture than for any interest in the original piece. A valid idea in and of itself, but what are we to make of the other 95 percent of the work? Against the deeper resonance of Va Pensiero, is the rest just an empty show for the Austrian 1 percent? Directors taking significant liberties with a piece in order to plumb a broader swath of significance have something of a responsibility to at least attempt to "use all the parts," and one could imagine a richer production on this same theme that understands the entire work through the lens of 19th century revolution. Strassberger's production sheds a bit of light on this path but opts instead for a "just the tip" strategy that shortchanges a lot of the evening.

For another, there are some uncomfortable gimmicks attached to the Va Pensiero concept that border on the cheap. See below for a clip from a Nabucco production Riccardo Muti led in Rome last year. After a rapturous reception, Muti turns and says something or other to the audience about Italian culture in danger, and then leads an encore sing along with the audience. Italian politics kind of makes my brain melt, but clearly, that country has been going through some shit, and the audience and Muti had something of a sad, cathartic moment here. Its hard to imagine that Strassberger, if not keying off this (who knows when the production was actually designed) could fail to recognize this as a clear parallel with his production. At WNO, clueless American audiences are treated to an enforced bis of the chorus in Act III, and then a calculated surprise sing along encore Va Pensiero during the curtain call (after the soprano has summarily rejected some flowers thrown from the box of one of the faux aristocrats). Rather than shed light on Nabucco or critically engage the audience, these stunts register as an appeal to baser audience desires for some kind of participation or spontaneous feeling, no matter how contrived.

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