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An Electrifying and Colorful Nabucco

San Diego
San Diego Opera
02/20/2010 -  & 23, 26, 28 February 2010
Giuseppe Verdi: Nabucco
Richard Paul Fink (Nabucco), Sylvie Valayre (Abigaille), Arthur Shen (Ismaele), Raymond Aceto (Zaccaria), Susana Poretsky (Fenena), Alfred Walker (High Priest of Baal), Joseph Hu (Abdallo), Priti Gandhi (Anna)
San Diego Opera Chorus, Timothy Todd Simmons (Chorus Master), San Diego Symphony Orchestra, Jeff Thayer (Concertmaster), Edoardo Müller (Conductor)
Lotfi Mansouri (Director), Michael Yeargan (Scenic Designer), Jane Greenwood and Marie-Louis Waleck (Costume Designers), Michael Whitfield (Lighting Designer), Steven W. Bryant (Wig and Makeup Designer)

(© Cory Weaver)

By 1840 he had experienced personal tragedies with the death of his wife and two children. It would be difficult for anyone to stay focused on his professional career. Prior to these misfortunes, Giuseppe Verdi’s first opera, Oberto (1839), was successful enough for La Scala impresario Bartolomeo Merelli to offer the budding artist a contract to produce three more operas. Despite the abysmal failure of the comic work, Un giorno di regno (1840), the young Verdi would find it a learning curve and a launching pad that resulted in creating a most favorable Nabucco that showcased in 1842.

Nabucco is early Verdi, filled with abundant melodies, catchy tunes, dramatic duets, and voluminous ensembles. San Diego Opera brings this Lotfi Mansouri directed production back to stage after a hiatus of twenty-nine years. Although in repertoire, it is seldom seen in these parts, and we are privileged to have this drama lirico return to America’s Finest City.

The construct of music can be seen as a string of scenes and songs, the songs moving the plot along. Having concluded an exceptional Madama Butterfly in 2009, Tony Award © winning Michael Yeargan solves the problem of seven scene changes by laying a core platform foundation that is magically and efficiently modified on stage.

After the beautifully executed overture under the baton of Eduardo Müller, we are first introduced to Raymond Aceto as Zaccaria, The High Priest of Jerusalem. He’s ready from the get go and consistently delivers throughout the opera, displaying exceptional depth in each of his three arias. The lines are controlled, the voice is rich and the projection full-bodied. Likewise, the energy in Verdi’s Nabucco is heard in Zaccaria’s initial dialogue with Timothy Todd Simmons’ chorus members. It is grand.

Under a bath of deep blue light, we see a symbolic red used as the anchor color for the Babylonians’ costumes while the Hebrews are displayed in off white and black robes. It is visually pleasing and appropriately represented.

Returning from last year’s Tosca French soprano Sylvie Valayre tackles the demanding role of Abigaille. Valayre’s coloratura jumps in Act I stretches her tessitura, and one detects the taxation, resulting in disruptive degrees of volume. Yet she manages quite well with her broad vocal range despite occasional struggling. Each lead singer in Nabucco possess his or her level of tension and drama. Richard Paul Fink returns to San Diego in the commanding title role. As the opera progresses, Fink grows into the role, getting stronger and stronger. It all gels when the thunderbolt strikes him in Act II, Scene II, and he then hits a home run.

Making his debut in San Diego is Arthur Shen in the spinto role of Ismaele. His smaller voice weaves in and out of the opera, adding depth to the growing conflict and frequent diatribes. Fenena, legitimate daughter of Nabucco, is sung by Israeli mezzo-soprano Susana Poretsky with sufficient emotion as does Alfred Walker in the role of the High Priest of Baal with an authoritarian ring.

Lyrically speaking, the most familiar section of Nabucco is that of the Hebrew Chorus, “Va pensiero”. Here we find Simmons’ well trained chorus singing with beautiful legato and conservative emotion as they lie scattered on the ground. Many times Yeargan uses background projection images to depict the internal architecture of the Babylonian palace, including an idyllic view of the Euphrates River peacefully submerged in a golden glow. Projected on a screen, the beginning of each segment is introduced with scenic location and selected quotations from the Old Testament’s, Book of Jeremiah, that provides biblical prophecy. This adds a tasteful touch.

As the emotions runs high and wide in Nabucco, this necessitates the department of lighting to capture appropriate snapshots throughout. Michael Whitfield executes the job superbly in order to accentuate Jane Greenwood’s and Marie-Louis Waleck’s array of costume designs, ranging from opulent majestic regalia to regimental uniforms and peasants’ garb.

One senses an air of respectful acquiescence amongst these cast members from beginning to end. Because of this, the corps achieves a pleasant mix which is what Verdi intended. Nabucco is an opera that leaps and pops musically requiring animated acting in order to provide maximum effect, but somewhere this element is lost. Granted there are tremendous demands placed on the principals, the blocking is particularly stiff, unanimated and dull. While we see an occasional snap of true connect, we yearn to see more.

Verdi’s Nabucco is a treasure and a timeless masterpiece, and San Diego Opera honors the work in colorful and electrifying fashion. You will not want to miss this seldom visited opera from the Italian composer’s early years.

Christie Grimstad



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