Viva Verdi! Bravo Opera Carolina's Nabucco !
by William Thomas Walker
Giuseppe Verdi's third opera, Nabucco , is rare fare so the Charlotte premiere in the N.C. Blumenthal Performing Arts Center's Belk Theatre, given by Opera Carolina, was most welcome. Now in its 55th season, the company fielded a formidable array of world-class soloists in their prime as well as a marvelous chorus that was a vitally effective character in its own right. We will review the October 25 performance but were lucky enough to have attended opening night (October 23), too.
Anyone with a serious interest in the details and background of the composer's works ought to read Julian Budden's The Operas of Verdi , Volume I, which covers Oberto to Rigoletto and from which quoted material herein comes. After the disaster of his comic opera, Un Giorno di Regno , Verdi had vowed never to write another opera. He had lost both his wife and two children to illness. The impresario Bartolomeo Merelli gave the composer the libretto of Nabucco by Temistocle Solera. Verdi recounted, "I... threw the manuscript on to the table almost violently.... The roll of paper opened out; and without my knowing quite how I found myself staring at the page in front of me and my eyes fell on this line: 'Va pensiro sull'ali dorati.'" This caught his imagination and led to his creating the most famous chorus of the opera, one that had profound influence on his career and on the Risorgimento movement to free divided Italy from foreign domination.
Charlotte's production boasted a cast with no weaknesses evident in the major roles. All had firmly supported voices, admirably even throughout their ranges, and excellent diction and projection, and all could readily be heard from row E of the upper balcony on October 23 and row D of the middle mezzanine on October 25, without amplification. With visceral low notes, bass Luiz-Ottàvio Faria was outstanding as Zaccaria, High Priest of the Hebrews. One of Verdi's most memorable innovations is in Act II, s.2, when Zaccaria's recitative and Preghiera ("Tu che sul labbro") is underpinned with the "rich tapestry of six (divided) cellos" joined by the first desk violas and pizzicato double-basses near the end. Baritone Mark Delavan was larger than life as the increasingly power mad Nabucco, King of Babylon. His rich lower register gave his voice added weight and color. His range of characterization was prodigious, from his braggadocio and defiling of the Torah in Act I through his hubris in calling himself a god and subsequent madness in Act II, followed by abject pleading for his daughter Fenana's life in the fused Acts III-IV. Quite matching him in breadth of characterization was the dramatic soprano Rebecca Copley as his bastard daughter Abigaille. This is a killer role for a singer without a firm technical foundation. One minute she is soaring at the top of her range only to instantly plummet to her solid chest voice. The jagged pattern of high and low singing is astounding. Copley fulfilled these parameters in both performances, seemingly a little more at ease in the October 25 outing. Being the "good" daughter didn't give mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich as much scope for acting, but her upper register facilitated fine high notes in the role. To the role of Ismaele, nephew of the king of Jerusalem, José Luis Duval brought a tenor voice with moderate weight and good tone and color. The constant conflict between his love for Nabucco's daughter Fenena and his duty to his people was well depicted. Added to this mix was the unrequited love of Abigaille, whom it would be an understatement to call "a woman scorned"! Bass Harold Wilson brought plenty of guile and brutality to the role of the conspiratorial High Priest of Baal. David Holley, active on the voice faculty at UNC Greensboro and an imaginative opera director as well, was effective as Abdallo, an officer loyal to Nabucco. Martha Zakkary was heard briefly in the role of Anna, sister of Zaccaria.
The chorus, portraying the oppressed Hebrews, deserved equal billing with the soloists. Chorusmaster Mark Tysinger welded an evenly balanced ensemble into a collective character held together with tight ensemble and fine diction. Through seemingly random clumps of singers and dynamic blocking, Stage Director Marc Verzatt managed to bring drama to what could have been static scenes. The monumental unit set designed by Claude Giraud was readily changed from the Temple of Solomon to the Babylonian Throne Room, to a prison, or to the banks of the Euphrates by such touches as added doors with Assyrian warriors in relief, monster headed lion statues, decorative drop cloths or the towering idol of Nabucco . All of these were subtly illuminated by Michael Baumgarten. Nabucco's being struck down by lightening was accomplished with an intensified spotlight followed by complete darkness.
Opera Carolina's General Director James Meena conducted an idiomatic and vital performance, ably supporting his singers while carefully balancing the players in the large pit. Because of the on-going Charlotte Symphony strike, the orchestra was made up of musicians hired through the local union. Cellist Alan Black, flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead and oboist Terry Maskin had prominent solos. Verdi's score makes extensive use of the woodwinds; on this occasion, the bassoons, led by Mary Beth Griglak, were preeminent. Meena made the best possible case for the coarse, jaunty march music and the funeral march, which Budden describes as "a lame piece music..., all too credibly ascribed to Verdi's Busseto years." These scattered trifles lay cheek by jowl with some of the composer's finest early efforts.
Opera Carolina maintains an excellent website at http://www.operacarolina.org/. The company's' remaining productions are Porgy and Bess (shared with Piedmont Opera), La Bohème , Lucia di Lammermoor (with Sumi Jo), and Amahl and the Night Visitors.