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Tatiana Serjan
15 Feb 2016

Nabucco with a Rare Cast at Lyric Opera of Chicago

The background of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco, currently being presented at Lyric Opera of Chicago, draws on the struggle between Babylonian and Hebrew forces, emphasized in this production graphically by alternating scripts in cuneiform and Hebrew projections.

Nabucco with a Rare Cast at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Tatiana Serjan


At the same time, emotional and familial conflicts are delineated within this Biblical context, such that both individual and group roles must be strategically cast. The title role of the Assyrian king Nabucco is sung by Željko Lučić, his presumed daughters Abigaille and Fenena by Tatiana Serjan and Elizabeth De Shong. The Hebrew prophet Zaccaria is portrayed by Dmitry Belosselskiy, the allied Hebrew youth Ismaele by Sergei Skorokhodov, and the High Priest of Baal by Stefan Szkafarowsky. The roles of Anna and Abdallo are sung by Laura Wilde and Jesse Donner. Messsrs. Belosselskiy and Skorokhodov are performing in their debut roles at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Carlo Rizzi conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Michael Black has prepared the Lyric Opera Chorus. These performances are being given with no cuts to Verdi’s score.

Under Mr. Rizzi’s firm control the overture introduces a number of well-known melodies from Verdi’s tuneful score. Brass and percussion alternate appropriately without either dominating, just as the woodwinds trace a lively theme taken up by the full orchestra in repeat. Rapid portions of the overture toward the close show a similar tautness, with slides played effortlessly as a natural extension. The orchestra has been well prepared and responds to Rizzi’s clear, vigorous direction. During the final bars of the overture the audience sees projected a quote from the Old Testament “Jeremiah,” according to which the burning of Jerusalem by Nabucco is prophesied.

At the start of Act I, or Part I, inside the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the approach of Nabucco’s forces is announced. Men dressed here in Hebrew prayer-shawls, Levites, and Virgins sing of the impending destruction. The chorus of Levites encourages the female chorus to rely on “la viva preghiera” [“fervent prayer”] to resist the “furor” of the enemy. Given the pivotal role played by the chorus throughout this early Verdi opera, it is significant that members of the Lyric Opera Chorus are so well directed in this production by Mr. Black. Each choral group leads fluently into the next as, for instance, here the harp accompaniment announces the women’s prayers in response to the Levites and the heartfelt supplication on “ottengano pietade” [“obtain mercy”]. The emphatic repeat of the assembled choral forces is powerfully delivered.

The entrance of the prophet Zaccaria, spiritual leader of those already in the temple, brings a sign of hope, hence his initial line, “Sperate” [“Raise your hopes”]. He plans to use Fenena, the captive daughter of Nabucco, as a means to force the invader to grant the Hebrews peace. In the role of Zaccaria Mr. Belosselskiy commands the stage while varying his tone from a reassuring leader to a proclaimer of divine assistance. Belosselskiy’s authoritative declamation at the start reveals the strategy of using Fenena as a hostage. His solo part, alternating with the choral groups, transforms into lyrical pronouncements on the repeated line “Freno al timor!” [“Curb your fears!”]. Although delivered at first as a reassuring statement, the sentiment swells on a high pitch with dramatic intensity and descends afterward into vocally deep pathos. In the following cabaletta, as he asks the God of Abraham to oppose the god of Baal, Belosselskiy sings with astonishingly rapid flexibility, describing the falsity of the idol with a melismatic decoration on “menzogner.” In the meantime the youth Ismaele has entered at the head of a troop of Hebrew soldiers. His announcement of Nabucco’s imminent arrival at the temple is delivered by Mr. Skorokhodov with a bright, unforced tenor that shows a natural instinct for tracing a melodic line. When left alone with Fenena, memories of Ismaele’s days as emissary to Babylon rekindle a relationship of mutual attraction. Although her sister Abigaille had also indicated her love for Ismaele, such feelings were not returned. Ismaele’s summary of those days and his resistance to Abigaille, then as now, are performed by Skorokhodov with dramatic high pitches on “l’invido e crudel vigilar di tua suora, che me … perseguitò” [“the cruel and envious vigilance of your sister who … pursued me”]. He caps his urgent devotion to Fenena with extended, repeated top notes on “il mio petto” [“my heart”]. At the moment of the pair’s attempt to flee, Abigaille, dressed as a warrior, enters the temple leading a band of Babylonian soldiers. From her opening lines Ms. Serjan makes an unforgettable impression as Abigaille. Because of the notorious vocal challenges of the role, including descents of two octaves within a passage or aria, those rare sopranos with Serjan’s agility, energy, and focused pitch are ideally cast as this obsessed woman. After her threatening address to the loving couple, Abigaille joins in a trio to express the raging fury of her love. When she offers to save Ismaele and his people, in exchange for his devotion, Serjan strikes a chilling distended top note on “salvar” [“save”], soaring magically beyond the orchestra. As a contrasting female role, de Shong’s Fenena appeals to the God of Israel for support, her vocal timbre shimmering through the tension of her partners in the trio.

Nabucco’s entrance causes a mix of awe and panic, the military force here symbolized with smoke and flashing lights. At his appearance through a rear portal Mr. Lučić responds to Zaccaria as a figure of equivalent authority. When he asks what God he has offended [“Di Dio che parli?”] and continues in his opening words with further imperious questions, Lučić tends, at first, to veer flat on emphatic pitches. This vocal habit abates during the grand ensemble that ends the act. Here the major characters participate while singing shared melodies yet verbalizing their individual concerns. Serjan sings commanding downward runs to describe her rivalry and hopes for revenge against Fenena [“colei che il solo mio ben contende” (“she who disputes my one and only love”)]. By the conclusion of Act I all the leading figures have been introduced and associated with conflicts that will be musically and dramatically developed in the following three acts.

The scene has shifted to Babylon at the start of Act II, with a prophecy from Jeremiah indicating that the Lord’s might will fall upon the wicked. Abigaille paces alone while reading a document [“o fatal scritto!”] which she has found in Nabucco’s possession. She refuses to be thwarted in her quest for power by news that she is descended from a family of slaves [“di schiavi”]. When Serjan communicates this text in recitative, her character’s growing determination is delivered with the intensity of an aria. The words “O iniqui tutti” [“O, all of you wretches”] and “furore” are hurled with dramatic top notes to express Abigaille’s indignation at Nabucco’s preferential treatment of Fenena and the future of the realm. Even more impressive is Serjan’s summation of fury with a clean descent to emotional depths on “fatal sdegno” [“fatal anger”]. Abigaille’s following two arias expand then on the complexities of her personality. In the cavatina “Anch’io dischiuso” [“I once opened (my heart)”] Serjan sings with full vocalic emphasis of a touching past in Abigaille’s life, now “perduto incanto” [“lost enchantment”]. In a rapid shift to the present, as well as a faster tempo, Abigaille sings the cabaletta “Salgo già del trono aurato” [“I now ascend of the golden throne”]. With the chorus as background Serjan produces thrilling downward runs in predicting that the nobility will come “l’umil schiava a supplicar” [“to beg favors of the humble slave”]. The second scene of this act seems by its close to fulfil Abigaille’s prophecy. At first Zaccaria joined by a chorus of Levites prays for guidance to oppose Nabucco. Once it is announced that Fenena has converted, an ensemble of the principal characters sings with the re-entry of Nabucco and Abigaille. In the struggle for power Nabucco demands to be worshipped as a god, while Zaccaria issues warnings of his “pazzo orgoglio” [“insane pride”]. Belosselskiy’s fervent vocal embellishments enhance the sense of danger facing Nabucco, yet he persists until stopped by a thunderbolt. Nabucco’s subsequent delusional appeals for help seem even more poignant given Lučić’s soft, lyrical repetitions on “Perché?” [“Why?”]. In the final moments Abigaille indeed lifts the crown fallen from Nabucco’s humbled brow.

In Acts III and IV the increased importance of Fenena is here emphasized as a key to appreciating the other characters. Her conversion to the Hebrew God has allied her to Zaccaria, at once calling forth the wrath of Abigaille. In the first scene of Act III, one of the dramatic highlights between Nabucco and Abigaille, the king signs the writ of death for his daughter Fenena by agreeing to the slaughter of the Hebrews. In “Donna, chi sei?” [“Woman, who are you?”] and the following lengthy exchange, Abigaille seems to grow in confidence while Nabucco is reduced into a positon of multiple entreaties. Serjan’s chilling declaration, “L’ultimo grado è fatto!” [“The last obstacle is surmounted!”] summarizes Abigaille’s ascent at the expense of any opponents. The hinge between this scene and the return of Nabucco’s sanity is indeed the chorus of Hebrew slaves, “Va, pensiero, sull ali dorate” [“Fly, thought, on wings of gold”] in the second scene of Act III. As here performed, the Lyric Opera Chorus communicates the dignity and sense of remembrance so vital for this group of exiles.

In the final act, signaling a reawakening of the royal sensibilities, Nabucco is moved to prayer when he hears that the imprisoned Fenena will soon be executed. In the aria, “Dio di Giuda” [“God of the Hebrews”] he now begs knowingly for divine forgiveness and pledges faith to the Hebrew God. Lučić demonstrates here a firm command of legato with a natural sense of shading after forte notes. In the second scene of Act IV Zaccaria prepares Fenena spiritually for her path to martyrdom. De Shong sings her character’s farewell to mortal life with strong top notes and lush decoration in downward runs as she looks heavenward. Nabucco’s return to sanity and to power, occasioned by the realization of this martyrdom, brings about the fall of Abigaille. Her final plea for forgiveness is directed, ironically, to the Hebrews whom she had hoped to destroy. At the point of Abigaille’s death Zaccaria can proclaim of Nabucco, “Sarai de' regi il re!” [“You shall be king of kings!”], a phrase to which Belosselskiy lends authority with a dramatically sustained, concluding pitch.

To be sure, there exists no perfect cast for Verdi’s Nabucco - yet the production at Lyric Opera of Chicago offers a collective force that comes awfully close.

Salvatore Calomino

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