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By the Waters of Babylon

Kennedy Center Opera House
04/28/2012 -  & May 2, 5, 10, 13, 15*, 21, 2012
Giuseppe Verdi: Nabucco
Burak Bilgili (Zaccaria), Sean Panikkar (Ismaele), Géraldine Chauvet (Fenena), Csilla Boross (Abigaille), Maria Eugenia Antύnez (Anna), Leo An (Nabucco), Soloman Howard (High Priest of Baal), Jeffrey Gwaltney (Abdallo)
Washington National Opera Chorus and Dancers, Steven Gathman (Chorus Master), Diane Coburn Bruning (Choreographer), Washington National Opera Orchestra, Philippe Auguin (Conductor)
Thaddeus Strassberger (Director and Set Designer), Mark McCullough (Lighting Designer),Mattie Ullrich (Costume Designer), Anne Ford-Coates for Elsen Associates (Hair and Makeup Designer)

L. An (© WNO)

The Washington National Opera’s current production of Giuseppe Verdi’s grand, romantic melodrama Nabucco is an unusually well done production of a notoriously problematic opera. It features spectacular sets and costumes, a superb chorus, an ideal cast, and a magnificent conductor. An exceptional feat particularly considering it is the very first venture in the company’s history with a production of this opera.

Nabucco, an opera in four acts with a libretto by Temistocle Solera, is based on the Biblical story of the Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar and the 1836 play by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis Cornue. Premiered on March 9, 1842 at La Scala di Milano, it is Verdi’s third opera, and the one that is generally considered to have permanently established his reputation as a composer.

Making his début with the WNO in the starring role of Nabucco, South Korean baritone Leo An displayed a magnificent Verdi baritone voice. It was imposing in both size and timbre. He also possesses a most commanding stage presence and he dominated the stage in all of his scenes.

He was seconded only by the extraordinary Hungarian dramatic soprano Csilla Boross, who is also making her WNO début in this production, in the demanding and often destructive role of Abigaille. This role has often been considered the downfall of many sopranos. (Comedian Anna Russell had an hysterical routine on this very subject.) Sopranos Anita Cerquetti and Elena Suliotis both sang the role of Abigaille before their voices were ready for it, which arguably brought about the early ruination of their voices. Maria Callas sang the role only three times early in her career in 1948, although she kept the principal aria, a brilliant vocal and dramatic showpiece in her concert repertoire throughout her entire career. Miss Boross sang the role of Abigaille with great power and finesse without ever resorting to the yodeling and cackling between the extremes of the high and low registers that has characterized the singing of so many sopranos who undertake this role. This is perhaps a good indication that she will be able to keep the part in her repertoire for some years to come. It was a pleasure to hear her sing this.

As the lovers Ismaele and Fenena, American tenor Sean Panikkar and French mezzo-soprano Géraldine Chauvet both made strong impressions. Turkish bass Burak Bilgili was equally effective in the role of Zaccaria the Hebrew High Priest. His many scenes with the wonderful chorus of the Washington National Opera were among the most memorable and beautifully sung moments in the opera. It is a pity the chorus did not give an encore of “Va, pensiero” although the audience was rather loudly calling for one.

I become more enamored with the conducting of Maestro Philippe Auguin each time I hear him. He has a wonderful way with Verdi and his command and authority dominated the entire evening from the pit. The WNO orchestra, as a rule, is always quite good, but they sounded especially fine this evening with a lush and sonorous string sound and a warm vibrancy with rhythmic tautness from the brass/winds.

The icing on this production was without a doubt the sets and costumes of Thaddeus Strassberger and Mattie Ullrich, enhanced by the exquisite lighting of Mark McCullough. It gave one the impression of watching a Biblical Epic directed and filmed by Cecil B. DeMille. It was a real treat for the eyes and most beguiling to watch. The production received a standing ovation and loud cheers of Bravo throughout the Kennedy Center Opera House. Indeed, it was all well deserved.

Micaele Sparacino



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