All season long, opera companies around the world have celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi. Florida Grand Opera pays tribute to the Italian composer with its own grand production of Verdi’s first major success, “Nabucco.”
The Biblical tale of the sacking of Jerusalem and Hebrew exile in Babylon serves as the inspiration for the 1842 opera, named for the Assyrian king, Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar, in English). Tomistocle Solera’s libretto expands upon the story, quickly revealing palace intrigue as Nabucco’s daughter, Abigaille (Maria Guleghina), plots to steal the throne from her sister, Fenena (Mabel Leto), who has fallen in love with the young Israelite, Zaccaria (Kevin Short) and renounced the Assyrian god, Baal. Nabucco (Dario Solari), weakened by the battle to capture Jerusalem, initially falls for Abigaille’s plot before summoning his strength to regain his throne.
The Russian soprano, Guleghina, brought cheers from the audience at the end of each and every challenging aria, the downfalls of many a singer, with very high tessitura. Even the great Maria Callas only sang the role three times in her long career. Equally impressive, on the opposite end of the range, was the thunderous bass of Martin Nusspaumer, as the Hebrew priest Ismaele who warns of the wrath of the God of Israel.
One after another, the principals amazed with technical dexterity and musical excellence, but unlike other operas, “Nabucco” prominently places the 40-voice chorus on stage in nearly every scene, portraying the defiant Hebrews.
The highlight of the opening night performance came after a sumptuous performance of the chorus, “Va pensiero,” as conductor Ramón Tebar turned around to lead the audience in a repeat of what became the unofficial national anthem of Italy by the late nineteenth century.
The stage direction of Leigh Holman is melodramatic—almost over the top—and reminiscent of the silent films made by Cecil B. DeMille in the 1920s, complete with his trademark casts of thousands.
Unlike silent movies there are no cards with the dialogue, just the brilliant music, led by Tebar and the full opera orchestra, punctuated by colorful, almost vintage sets designed by Thaddeus Strassberger.
It was easy to imagine this production, in Italian grand opera tradition, thrilling the crowds at La Scala in 1842. There were even a few “deus ex machina” (“God from the machine”) effects, including bolts of lightning and the explosion of the pagan altar, courtesy of lighting designer Mark McCullough. Similarly, the costumes by Mattie Ulrich were rich, whether clothing Hebrew worshipers, royalty, legions of soldiers or the mysterious priests of Baal.
It’s been 32 years since Florida Grand Opera performed “Nabucco” in Miami. Let’s hope audiences don’t have to wait another 32 years for this brilliant opera.
If You Go
What: “Nabucco” by Giuseppe Verdi Florida Grand Opera
When: Jan. 29, 31, Feb. 1, Arsht Center, Miami
Feb. 6 and 8, Broward Center, Fort Lauderdale
More Info: Tickets at FGO.org