Thursday, January 28, 2016

Babylon Revisited: With Rousing Choruses and a Sensational Soprano, 'Nabucco' Pleases at the Lyric -- Chicago Opera Review

Opera / Theater Review

by Giuseppe Verdi
directed by Matthew Ozawa
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru February 12

Nabucco, written in 1841 as just the third opera by the legendary Giuseppe Verdi, is supposedly (per Wikipedia) the work that really launched the Italian's reputation and renown--at just 27 years old--but isn't as famed or commonly staged as La Traviata, Aida, Macbeth, Rigoletto, Otello and other operas Verdi would create over a subsequent half-century.

I hadn't heard of Nabucco until noting its inclusion in the Lyric's 2015-16 season, which intrigued me enough to not only take advantage of a 3-operas-for-$99 subscription offer, but to add a fourth opera to my package. (Some years back I subscribed to full seasons for awhile, but it became a bit too much for my level of enjoyment.)

Between a regard for Verdi's iconic stature--I've seen the first four titles mentioned two paragraphs up, though can't claim great recall--and a compelling description of Nabucco on the Lyric's website, I included it in my subscription and attended on Wednesday night.

As I learned by doing a bit more reading about Nabucco just this week, the title character is an Assyrian king--in English known as Nebuchadnezzar--who, circa 586 B.C., leads the army of Babylon into Jerusalem to do battle with the Jews.

Supposedly not much concerned with strict adherence to historical accuracy, Verdi's opera with a libretto by Temistocle Solera--based on both a play and ballet covering similar ground--deals not only with war, persecution and tyranny, but love, family and betrayal.

One of Nabucco's daughters, Fenena (Elizabeth DeShong), is captured by the Jews and entrusted to Ismaele (Sergei Skorokhodov), a former and rekindled lover, while his other daughter, Abigaille (Tatiana Serjan), turns against both her father (Zeljko Lucic as Nabucco) and her sister, in part because Ismaele has spurned Abigaille's advances in favor of Fenana.

So although Nabucco is something of a war story focusing on Jewish history I likely learned about in Hebrew school eons ago, its plot involves enough soap opera-y melodrama--akin to many "great" operas--that it held my interest but didn't fully captivate me through dramatic heft.

What I liked best about Nabucco is its preponderance of great choral numbers, including one of Verdi's most famed compositions, "Va, Pensiero" (literally "Fly, thought, on golden wings" but often referred to as "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves"), for which the stage was completely filled with singers.

The choruses were accompanied--directly but also separately--by several loud, bombastic flourishes in Verdi's score.

As admittedly still a neophyte when it comes to classical music and opera, I find the music most exciting when it swells thunderously--and in Nabucco it repeatedly does.

And while I never pretend to have the expertise to intelligently judge or critique opera singers--they all sound good to me--as Abigaille, Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan was demonstrably terrific, especially during a prolonged second act aria. (Nabucco has four acts, but is done with just one intermission.)

The other primary cast members, including Lucic, DeShong, Skorokhodov and Dmitry Belosselskiy as Zaccharia, a Jewish prophet, are also entirely estimable.

Michael Yeargan's set designs aren't quite as stupendous as others I've seen at the Lyric, but certainly impressive enough, especially in accommodating the vast choruses. Jane Greenwood's costumes are terrific, chorus master Michael Black clearly deserves mention and in reviving the Lyric's last production of Nabucco from 1997-98--per John von Rhein's much more astute review in the Chicago Tribune--director Matthew Ozawa and conductor Carlo Rizzi impressively make it all work, musically and visually.

So with rousing choruses, orchestral flourishes, sublime singers including a sensational soprano, a somewhat sobering plot and engaging visuals, it would seem Nabucco was an opera I truly loved.

I certainly did enjoy it, and relished "Va, Pensiero" and other ravishing parts, but I can't say Nabucco changed my overall regard for opera--more appreciation and admiration than emotional embrace--nor delighted me quite on par with The Marriage of Figaro and The Merry Widow earlier this season.

Still I imagine that not only affirmed opera lovers will find great pleasure in Nabucco, it would seem a pretty good choice for those looking to "check out an opera" or go on a relatively rare excursion. 

Along with the powerful music, great choruses and excellent arias--essentially low-hanging fruit in terms of operatic enjoyment--Nabucco clocks in under 3 hours and moves along fairly swiftly.

I was hoping to end this by conveying that tickets are fairly available and reasonably priced, but though--based on a quick check of upcoming performances--the former indeed seems true, the furthest seats in the house (in the upper balcony) now seem to start at $149 (presumably based on a dynamic--i.e. fluctuating based on demand--pricing model).

For that much cash, I don't know if I can heartily recommend Nabucco on an ad hoc basis, though those interested may want to call the Lyric box office and/or check for any potential discounts on HotTix or Goldstar.

My $33 per show subscription rate actually has me down in the first balcony, rather than the upper. And though I haven't yet seen renewal offers, the Lyric recently announced its 2016-17 season.

Hence, while it is quite conceivable that you would enjoy Nabucco, you may do just as well--or even better--by planning ahead and catching other great productions a bit more economically.

I've seen four operas this season for less than the lowest prices I now note just for Nabucco. And while it is quite good, I can't say it is singularly so.

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