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A moment of peace in the Middle East

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
01/25/2014 -  & January 26, 28*, 29*, 31, Feb 1 (Miami), 6, 8 (Fort Lauderdale) 2014
Giuseppe Verdi: Nabucco
Dario Solari/Nelson Martinez (Nabucco), Maria Gulighina/Susan Neves (Abigaille), Kevin Short (Zaccaria), Martin Nusspaumer (Ismaele), Mabel Ledo (Fenena), Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste/Betsy Diaz (Anna), Casey Finnigan (Abdallo), Adam Lau (High Priest)
Florida Grand Opera Chorus, Michael Sakir (chorus master), Florida Grand Opera Orchestra, Ramón Tebar (conductor)
Leigh Holman (director), Thaddeus Strassberger (set designer), Mattie Ulrich (costume designer), Mark McCullough (lighting designer)

N. Martinez (© Justin Namon)

Nabucco has great music, but it is not a great opera. This statement is neither profound nor original. But for opera lovers, and in particular new ones, it is important. It is very useful to see that the great composer of Italian opera was not yet there; he had to master his craft by taking on some librettos that were undeserving of his talent. Here Verdi made the text seem more significant than it is. The characters are given dimension almost solely through the music. The libretto might define them, but without a Verdi, this work would have disappeared almost immediately after its first production. Those wanting to learn about what makes this art form so astonishing will get valuable lessons from attending. Those of us who already know Nabucco's dramatic limitations will probably have a ball listening to the beautifully daring music and watching performers try to create something out of such silly and shallow material. It is also fun to recognize the seedlings of the later Verdi; this time Macbeth and Rigoletto came to my mind repeatedly.

For Nabucco Florida Grand Opera got the world’s two most respected interpreters for the challenging role of Abigaille. Which is better? That is for a listener to decide. One who reviews has it easy since he doesn’t pay for the tickets.

At 50-something Maria Guleghina looks great. And one would think that this role, which she has been doing forever, would have taxed her voice to the limit. But she sounded as fresh as ever. Sure, there were a few missed high notes and the great leap down was not executed with such certainty, but she offered a rich variety in Abigaille’s moods. She has little subtlety, yet her soft singing, with loads of beautiful bel canto legato, was a marvel of vocal flexibility. My experience in the past with this artist has not always been positive, so this performance was particularly pleasant. Susan Neves in the second cast gave a different interpretation. Her Abigaille was not really softer as much as less domineering. She did not play the role like a diva in overdrive but more like a young lady whose great appetite was something she could not control. Her “Anch'io dischiuso un giorno” floated with the sensitivity one expects for “Casta Diva”. Some of her high notes were shrill but this is, after all, Abigaille.

It is impossible to not measure the command of the baritone playing Nabucco to his adopted daughter. Dario Solari in the first cast was good; still the role is a shade too large for him. He was precise and the tone dark and masculine, but he is not a monarch one would fear. As an actor, he was particularly effective during his temporary insanity and imprisonment. Nelson Martinez is however, the real deal. The voice is huge, his presence powerful, and when necessary, scaled down for moments of sensitivity and pathos. The sweetness that is essential for the father-daughter duets is mesmerizing. This is a true Verdi baritone.

On the first night Kevin Short’s Zaccaria struggled in vain; but with the next performance he was much more grounded and gave a very touching interpretation.

Mabel Ledo has a beautiful, rich mezzo making Fenena’s prayer particularly moving. Her lover, Isamele, gave Martin Nusspaumer the opportunity to show his worth indicating that some day soon he will make a very effective lead Verdi tenor. Both made an impressive contribution to the ensembles.

Adam Lau as the High Priest continues his string of knockout performances in the character bass roles. This is a singer ready for the big league; Florida Grand Opera should wisely snap him up for something more deserving.

There will be debate on the staging of this production. The device is to make the audience feel it is watching the opera as if it were being presented during the era in which Verdi wrote it. From the flower-covered footlights to the faux cardboard curtains, it looks like a silent Biblical epic. Corny? Yup, and we are lucky for that, so just sit back and enjoy.

Conductor Ramón Tebar really understands this opera. Anyone who mistakenly thinks it is all bluster will find a rich subtlety in the overture that is often ignored. There is a Bellini-like simplicity to some of the orchestrations, in fact a considerable part of the vocal ensemble and the solo work is done a cappella. Maestro Tebar knows when less is more. And Florida Grand Opera’s great chorus, under the direction of Michael Sakir once again shows us that its contribution is as vital as any of the work’s roles.

So will you have a rich musical experience? Yes. Dramatically also? Of course not; this is Nabucco; but for an old fashioned spaghetti and meatballs opera, no one has a right to complain.

Nabucco will also be given at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale on February 6 and 8, 2014.

Jeff Haller



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