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Veni, Vidi, Verdi

The Academy of Music
09/27/2013 -   & September 29, October 2, 5, 6, 2013
Giuseppe Verdi: Nabucco
Sebastian Catana (Nabucco), Csilla Boross (Abigaille), Morris Robinson (Zaccaria), Adam Diegel (Ismaele), Margaret Mezzacappa (Fenena), Angela Morella (Anna), Musa Ngqungwana (High Priest of Baal), John Viscari (Abdallo)
Opera Philadelphia Chorus, Elizabeth Braden (chorus master), Opera Philadelphia Orchestra, Corrado Roveris (conductor)
Thaddeus Strassberger (director and stage designer), Mattie Ulrich (costume designer), David Zimmerman (wig and makeup designer), Jax Messenger (lighting designer)

C. Boross & S. Catana(© Kelly & Massa Photography)

Opera Philadelphia’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco, co-produced with Washington National Opera and Minnesota Opera, has truly grand proportions - visually, vocally and orchestrally. As conceived by director-designer Thaddeus Strassberger it tells both the story of the opera itself with the Assyrian oppression of Jews in Babylon circa 600BC, and the history of this opera at its premiere. Nabucco became Verdi’s first huge success as it was embraced by Italian audiences in 1842 as symbolic of their own struggle to gain freedom from the Austrian empire. This populist angle counters the opera’s dated gravitas and thematic bloat.

Strassberger has Austrian royals and soldiers sit in the side boxes in the Academy of Music as if they were at La Scala, Milan at the premiere performance. The Italian-Austrian tension plays out mostly in pantomime on the periphery until Strassberger’’s surprise finale, in a twist that drew gasps from the opening night audience in the packed Academy.

The Verdian action unfolds on stage as Nabucco’s forces storm a Jewish temple and kill worshipers in retaliation for of his daughter Fenena being held by Zaccaria, The High Priest of the Hebrews, who thinks he can use her to bargain for peace. In the midst of the Jewish-Assyrian struggle is the soap opera of warring sisters in love with the same man both trying to gain control of the army from their unhinged father.

Fenena has secretly converted to Judaism and is in love with Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem. Abigaille, Fenena‘s sister and Ismaele’s ex-lover, is furious when she discovers this. In her rage she seeks to exact vengeance against the Jews by any means necessary. Nabucco, mad with power, starts to loose his mind due to divine intervention as the sisters fight for his crown. Nabucco is stripped of power; this eventually leads to his redemption and he vows to rebuild the temples of Judah.

Soprano Csilla Boross, as Abigaille, has the most heavy lifting to do vocally in long obsessive solos expressing anger, betrayal and jealousy; she deftly and consistently navigates Verdi’s vocal labyrinth. Her voice just cuts through on its own frequency in a witty performance that lustily hovering just over the top.

Back to the La Scala scenario: Abigaille has hidden the fact that she was actually born a slave; in a reflective moment she sings about slave mistreatment - but suddenly assumes the character of the Italian singer of the day (Giuseppina Strepponi no less, Verdi’s future wife) and glares venomously at the Austrian nobles. Later during her bows she insolently hurls a flower back at them.

The other towering vocal role is Zaccaria; bass Morris Robertson wields command with both a towering presence ready to lead his people to spiritual survival, and with his dramatically convincing voice. Fluid tenor Adam Diegel turns in a robust performance as the valiant Ismaele.

Three singers trained at the city’s Academy of Vocal Arts are in the cast. Musa Ngqungwana as Zaccaria, Abagaille’s sinister priest-adviser, hobbles around looking sympathetic, but is ruthless in his plots against the Jews. John Viscardi is equally fine as Nabucco‘s aide-de-camp Abdallo. Margaret Mezzacappa (Fenena) seemed underpowered in the Academy, but in the HD broadcast of the performance (one day later on Independence Mall) her subtlety came through. She and Diegel have sublime chemistry vocally and as actors.

With more than one tour de force performance in this cast, Sebastian Catana as Nabucco almost seems secondary in the first two acts, but he rolls out this complex character’s arc of evil and redemption with precision and passion. His steel and silk baritone is most powerful as he moves toward redemption as the deposed king.

Strassberger keeps the chorus of 72 as much a part of the action as possible. They are roughed up quite a bit by the Babylonian guard in scenes with such sweep that they recall the "cast of thousands" in DeMille Biblical epics. Nothing is rough about their Verdian vocal prowess though, under Elizabeth Braden’s direction. The famous “Va, pensiero” Act III chorus where the Jews await their fate and express love for their lost homeland couldn’t have been more movingly powerful.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris’ pacing lets the singer breathe. Verdi’s robust orchestration is never overdone and his interpretive muscle is sublime in the serene passages. Among the many outstanding orchestral soloists are Sophia Kessinger, violin and Deborah Reeder, cello.

Strassberger’s set depicts Babylonian palaces and, in brief scenes, 18th century opera house décor c. 1842. Jax Messenger’s lighting design displays luxuriant period beauty - burnt hues with glowing highlights as if cast from torch footlight shells - and helps transport us to a lost world.

Lewis Whittington



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