Opera Philadelphia has changed a lot in the last few years. Their name is different (it used to be Opera Company of Philadelphia), their program has more variety (with smaller works in the smaller Perelman Theater), and, judging by the Nabucco that opened this season, their mainstage productions are aiming for a higher level as well. While Thaddeus Strassberger’s production promised more than it delivered, it basically worked, and this is a musically solid production of a tricky opera.
Verdi, Nabucco. Opera Philadelphia, 9/29/13. Conducted by Corrado Rovaris, directed by Thaddeus Strassberger with sets by Strassberger, costumes by Mattie Ullrich. Cast includes Csilla Boross (Abigaille), Sebastian Catana (Nabucco), Morris Robinson (Zaccaria), Adam Diegel (Ismaele), Margaret Mezzacappa (Fenena), Angela Mortellaro (Anna).
Verdi’s first big hit includes much of what we love or love to hate about Italian grand-ish opera: a distant setting, big tableaus, forbidden love, deus ex machina plot twists, public and private contrasts, and scenes that, in their clunkier moments, lurch from aria to choral interlude to cabaletta with the inevitability of an undersized model train set. The plot is complicated and many of the characters are broadly drawn, but the title role does offer a chance for a star turn by a baritone.
Strassberger’s production, previously seen in Washington, turns the opera’s potential hoariness in on itself by giving us a lightweight frame narrative of Nabucco in Risorgimento Italy. (The theater-in-theater trope is terribly overdone at this point, but this one at least is earnest rather than cutesy.) This manifests itself with a handful of aristocratic audience members, a bunch of entrances by soldiers, some patriotic stagehands, and a lot of business surrounding “Va, pensiero,” the anthem that may or may not have instantly organically become the de fact anthem of a non-yet-extant Italian state. We see the stagehands joining in, for example. (The exact nature of this event is one of the more hotly contested areas of Verdi studies and neither Strassberger nor I constitute experts on the topic.) This comes to a head in the supposed curtain call, where the singers (as the cast of this nineteenth-century performance) lead an encore of “Va pensiero.”
|“Va pensiero” with 19th-century Italians in back|
The main body staging is mostly earnest nineteenth-century stuff, complete with flat painted backdrops and tromp de l’oeil curtains (which look pretty cool). The costumes are also very colorful, and occasionally jangly. It’s fairly well done, a cut above what you often see in this kind of opera. Strassberger knows how to arrange people on a stage, though he isn’t always quite as good at moving them around, and the implication that the final scene is only Nabucco’s dream is interesting. But it’s not exactly revelatory.
|Boross, Diegel, Mezzacappa|
The real stars of the show were the large chorus and conductor Corrado Rovaris, who formed the backbone of the score’s many big ensemble numbers. The orchestra sounded fine as well. The most interesting voice among the soloists was Csilla Boross as Evil Daughter Abigaille, whose performance involved a good dealing of snarling and dramatic hand gestures. She’s got a huge, laser bright voice that she uses with a respectable amount of nuance. But her passagework tended to include considerable approximatura, and her chest voice did not project. Margaret Mezzacapa had in Fenena a rather ungrateful role, but sang well with a full, warm sound. In the even shorter role of Anna, Angela Mortellaro sounded excellent, and despite having a light soprano was clear in the ensembles.
In the title role, Sebastian Catana was authoritative without being quite electric. He’s got a fine, noble sound, a deeper sort of Verdi baritone that would probably sound excellent in lots of roles, but lacks a degree of stage charisma to take it to the next level. As Ismaele, Adam Diegel sang very loudly (it’s a loud singing sort of opera), with a bright and steely sort of tenor. Morris Robinson, in the significant role of Zaccaria, sounded appropriately authoritative at louder volumes but shaky at softer dynamics.
Honestly, I wondered if Strassberger’s concept backfired a bit. If you’re going to say that the opera reflected Risorgimento politics, why not really go for it beyond the one chorus? There’s a lot of stuff about religion here, for example. That seems important. Moreover, by showing a historic Nabucco that has a very important and urgent meaning for its onstage audience, the production defines the opera as something of the past, precluding any more radical rethinking of its relevance to today. This is why the final encore of “Va, pensiero” doesn’t quite work: while the production shows that it means something to its nineteenth-century audience members, it hasn’t made it mean anything to us, and inviting us to sing along is a little like crashing someone else’s party. Simultaneously, it never acknowledges that its own brand of meta-staging is a very modern kind of interpretive act. (It is missing, in other words, the final twist that Stefan Herheim’s Serse presented in its modern dress last scene.)
All that being said, it’s consistently watchable and would be a respectable effort for opera houses much larger than Philadelphia. The company’s season will continue with Ainadamar, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Don Giovanni, A Coffin in Egypt (a new opera by Ricky Ian Gordon), and, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Salome.
Correction: I originally said this production was seen in LA. It was not, but Strassberger’s I due Foscari was.
Photos copyright Kelly & Massa.