BWW Review: NABUCCO at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
On Oct 14, 2017, Los Angeles Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi's third opera, NABUCCO in a new and extremely well detailed production by Thaddeus Strassberger. It had already been seen in Minneapolis and Philadelphia. Upon entering the auditorium, audience members were greeted with a curtain that looked like a Babylonian frieze of a chariot swiftly drawn by four ferocious-looking horses.
During the overture, a costumed gentleman walked across the front of the stage lighting the footlights. At the far side of the stage were three boxes stacked vertically that eventually held ladies and soldiers in mid 19th century dress who observed the production. From the action at the sides of the stage we could see what opera was like when Verdi first unleashed his musical bombshell on European audiences.
Placido Domingo was Nabucco, the Babylonian king whose mental fragility caused him to break down after a bolt from above marked heavenly displeasure at his ascent to God status. Domingo, who has performed on major opera stages since the 1960s, can still sing marvelous performances and this was most certainly one of them.
Once the dignified and commanding King of Babylon who sang with sonorous tones, Domingo's character later dissolved into a loving father who pleaded for his daughter's life with graceful, arching lines of warm, resonant sound. Not only was Domingo's singing amazingly beautiful for a man in his 70s, it would have been remarkable for a man of any age. He is a world-class artistic treasure and I hope he will keep on performing for years to come.
The role of Abigaille has often been impossible to cast and for that reason we have not heard this opera on a regular basis. In 1960 Maria Callas was scheduled to sing it at the Metropolitan Opera but cancelled her appearances there. Abigaille then fell to the charismatic Leonie Rysanek who brought out the dramatic aspects of the character but struggled with its coloratura.
Few modern day sopranos had been able to handle both the coloratura and the dramatic requirements of the role before Liudmyla Monastyrska emerged from Eastern Europe to mesmerize audiences. She made the part of Abigaille seem easy. Gifted with a huge flexible voice, she sang with abandon as Nabucco's terrifying adopted daughter.
As Nabucco's biological daughter, Fenena, Nancy Fabiola Herrera sang with polished sonorities and she anchored some of the wide-ranging vocal forays of her would-be sister. Not only does this opera demand a top-drawer baritone along with an exceptional soprano and a fine mezzo, it requires a first class tenor and a bass with firm low notes. Operalia winner Mario Chang fulfilled the tenor role of Ismaele with style and grace.
Bass Morris Robinson sang the role of Zaccaria as though it had been made for him. Singing with the chorus, his voice flowed through their sound like a smooth, sonorous river current. Singing alone, his glorious sound washed over the audience like waves in the ocean. Other cast members Gabriel Vamvulescu as the High Priest of Baal and Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program member Josh Wheeker as an officer of the Babylonian Guard sang in exquisite Verdian style.
NABUCCO is a chorus-driven opera and Grant Gershon's formidable group entered with their well balanced harmonies urging the Hebrews to trust in God. Although the Los Angeles Opera Chorus is huge, they formed distinctive ensembles of Hebrews and Babylonians who sang with a transparency usually heard only from smaller groups.
An energetic James Conlon led the LA Opera Orchestra in a propulsive but graceful rendition of Verdi's memorably rhythmic score. He brought out the contrasts between the military music and the melodies that recalled calm and peaceful memories. Although this was the first time the orchestra had played NABUCCO, only once in the third act was there the slightest ruffle in the players' otherwise smooth performance.
Director Strassberger told his story in a straight forward dramatic manner. His scenery was both beautifully painted and functional. The very front of the stage held a delightful flower arrangement and a structure with baroque markings that hid the prompter's box. Mattie Ullrich's costumes were attractive and set the artists firmly in their time frames. Having actors as faux a 19th century audience allowed the singers to play to them occasionally, which amused the actual audience.
The applause at the end of the opera was tremendous. Following a few bows that included the chorus, Monastyrska called for quiet and Liv Redpath, the silver-voiced soprano from the young artist program who had sung Anna, began to sing "Va pensiero" as a solo. The chorus joined her for the second verse, after which the audience was invited to sing along and the titles screen showed the Italian words. More than a few operagoers left the auditorium happily singing their way to the parking lot.