19 October 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – NABUCCO (G. Hawkins, B. Harris, A. Gangestad, B. Arreola, O. Rafało; Opera Carolina – 18 October 2014)

IN PERFORMANCE: Brenda Harris as Abigaille, Gordon Hawkins in the title rôle, and Ola Rafało as Fenena in Opera Carolina's production of Giuseppe Verdi's NABUCCO [Photo by jonsilla.com, © 2014 by Opera Carolina]Mio furor, non più costretto: soprano Brenda Harris as Abigaille (center left), baritone Gordon Hawkins as Nabucco (center), and mezzo-soprano Ola Rafało as Fenena (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco [Photo by jonsilla.com, © 2014 by Opera Carolina]

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): NabuccoGordon Hawkins (Nabucco), Brenda Harris (Abigaille), Andrew Gangestad (Zaccaria), Brian Arreola (Ismaele), Ola Rafało (Fenena), Kelly Hutchinson (Anna), Kenneth Overton (High Priest of Baal), Martin Schreiner (Abdallo); Opera Carolina Chorus; Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Michael Baumgarten, Director of Production and Lighting Designer; Bernard Uzan, Director; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte, North Carolina; Saturday, 18 October 2014]

Though the true significance of the opera in the Risorgimento’s struggles to achieve and maintain Italian unification and independence in the Nineteenth Century was for decades greatly exaggerated, Nabucco is a work of a composer, a genre, and a nation at a history-altering crossroads. Premièred at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 1842, the score brought Verdi the triumphant success at which his earlier operas hinted but had not fully realized. In a broad sense, it is one of the composer’s most formulaic operas, the progression of choral set pieces with arias, cabalettas, and ensembles representing the conventions that Verdi was to play so significant a part in uprooting. Musically, Nabucco is a close relative of Donizetti’s 1836 opera Belisario, its dramatic and musical identities still adhering to bel canto idioms but also offering provocative glimpses of the later masterpieces Un ballo in maschera, La forza del destino, and Don Carlos. Verdi’s own correspondence suggests that the throbbing vein of patriotism that enlivens Nabucco was, on the composer’s part, decidedly more situational than political, but the contemporary context into which the opera was born undoubtedly contributed to the success of the score both at and after its first performance. However much they had revolution on their minds, the first-night audience for Nabucco cannot have failed to have also recognized Verdi’s fledgling musical genius. To the Twenty-First-Century observer, Verdi’s music is the foremost reason for revisiting Nabucco, but, in geopolitical terms, the opera is also a sad reminder of how little real progress has been made in relationships among cultures and religions since the tyrannical reign of Nebuchadnezzar and the bloody birth pangs of modern Italy.

Opera Carolina’s production by Michael Baumgarten and Bernard Uzan mostly evoked aptly pre-Christian scenes of Jerusalem and Babylon, the vibrant earthen tones of Nabucco and his court contrasting markedly with the pristine blues and whites of the Hebrews, reflected also in the fancifully Biblical costumes by Malabar. Projections filled the space at the rear of the stage, mostly credibly but glaringly anachronistically when displaying Twentieth-Century photographs. The images of centuries of Jewish suffering and victims of the Nazi Holocaust, the Stars of David emblazoned on their garments, shown during ‘Va, pensiero’ were poignant but needlessly exploitative: in an otherwise traditional, period-appropriate production, what had these projections to do with Verdi’s opera? The enslaved Hebrews of Nabucco have their own oppression and death sentences with which to contend, and imposing the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald upon Verdi’s settings seemed a cheap extrapolation rather than a legitimate artistic connection. Likewise, the pantomime execution of a Hebrew slave was unnecessary and, considering recent events in the Middle East, particularly uncomfortable. These efforts at increasing the opera’s relevance to a modern audience in actuality had the opposite effect. Mr. Baumgarten’s lighting largely kept the focus on the personal dramas that play out before the backdrop of societal and religious upheaval, but the damage was done: images of terrified children and starving prisoners in concentration camps distracted from Verdi’s music.

Conducted by Opera Carolina’s General Director and Principal Conductor, James Meena, the musicians of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra distinguished themselves with commendably well-rehearsed playing that captured a pronounced element of the Italianate morbidezza that was second nature to Verdi. The opera’s Overture and the Marcia funebre in Act Four were robustly played, and Maestro Meena led both the instrumentalists and the Opera Carolina Chorus in performances that meaningfully contrasted the actions of the ‘good’ Hebrews with those of the ‘bad’ Babylonians. In the chorus that opens Part One, ‘Gli arredi festivi giù cadano infranti,’ the choristers improved quickly after a slightly uncertain start by the tenors, their singing of the sotto voce ‘Il Dio d'Israello si cela per tema’ accurately tuned and appropriately reverent. The choristers’ account of the Levites’ chorus in Act Two, ‘Che si vuol,’ was strong and sonorous, particularly in the presto section, ‘O maledetto non ha fratelli.’ It is the celebrated chorus of Hebrew slaves in Act Three, ‘Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate,’ that lures many people to a performance of Nabucco, of course, and the Opera Carolina Chorus’s singing of it justified its attraction. The division of the voices into six-part harmony after the unison opening had the force of the explosive C-major chord that indicates the creation of light in Haydn’s Schöpfung. Opera Carolina did not perpetuate the tradition of encoring ‘Va, pensiero.’ They should have done so: the choir’s performance merited a repetition but, strangely, was lukewarmly received by the audience. Both the orchestral playing and the choral singing made favorable impressions on the whole, and Maestro Meena acquitted himself with his accustomed professionalism and welcome avoidance of gestures derived from sources other than Verdi’s score.

Supporting rôles were taken with distinction by attentive singers with fine voices that could not always be heard over the sometimes raucous din of Verdi’s orchestrations. Tenor Martin Schreiner brought a bright, penetrating timbre to Abdallo’s music, particularly in ‘Donna regal! deh fuggi!’ in the Act Two finale. Baritone Kenneth Overton was a stalwart Gran Sacerdote, his ‘Gloria ad Abigaille! Morte egli Ebrei!’ in Act Two exclaimed with the charge of a thunderbolt and a brilliant top E. In Act Three, his collusion with Abigaille was rousingly portrayed in his singing of ‘Eccelsa donna, che d’Assiria il fato reggi.’ Soprano Kelly Hutchinson made much of little as Anna, sounding as though she might have been called upon to sing Abigaille if necessary. The ease with which she ascended to her top As and Bs in the Act One finale was phenomenal, and her singing of ‘Deh fratelli, perdonate!’ in Act Two was impassioned. Her negotiations of the tricky lines taking her to top B♭ in the opera’s final scene were very impressive, and her voice exhibited both beauty and athleticism.

Mezzo-soprano Ola Rafało and tenor Brian Arreola made an appealing pair of unfortunate lovers as Fenena and Ismaele. Critical as their actions are to the plot, Verdi gave them surprisingly few solo lines. Nevertheless, a weak Fenena or Ismaele can undermine the success of a performance of Nabucco. From her first entrance, Ms. Rafało grasped every musical and histrionic opportunity given to Fenena, allying her firm, plush tones to acting of girlish subtlety. In the trio with Abigaille and Ismaele in Act One, ‘Io t'amava! il regno, il cuore,’ she sang splendidly, phrasing ‘Ah! già t'invoco, già ti sento’ with excellent comprehension of Verdi’s style. Her account of the cantabile Preghiera in Act Four, ‘Oh dischiuso è il firmamento,’ was superb, crowned with a well-placed top A in the cadenza. Mr. Arreola’s Ismaele was a similarly credible, confidently-sung characterization. The rôle’s tessitura centers punishingly in the passaggio from the start of Ismaele’s andante cantabile lines in the Act One trio, ‘Misera! o come più bella,’ and Mr. Arreola coped manfully with the top A in the phrase ‘il mio petto a te la strada.’ Later in the trio, Verdi asked him to begin ‘Ah no! la vita io t'abbandono’ on top G, and Mr. Arreola answered ringingly. His voicing of ‘Per amor di Dio vivente dall'anatema cessate!’ in Act Two was phrased with finesse, and his lines in ensembles were delivered with stirring panache. It seemed more than usually regrettable that Verdi did not give Ismaele a proper aria, whether or not it might have jeopardized the opera’s dramatic momentum. Both Ms. Rafało and Mr. Arreola were assets to the performance, and their depiction of lovers imperiled by cultural differences was rightly at the center of the drama.

IN PERFORMANCE: mezzo-soprano Ola Rafało as Fenena (left) and tenor Brian Arreola as Ismaele (right) in Opera Carolina's production of Verdi's NABUCCO [Photo by jonsilla.com, © 2014 by Opera Carolina]Misera! o come più bella: mezzo-soprano Ola Rafało as Fenena (left) and tenor Brian Arreola as Ismaele (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco [Photo by jonsilla.com, © 2014 by Opera Carolina]

Andrew Gangestad’s Zaccaria was by turns implacable, somewhat sinister, and quietly comforting. He rose to the top E in his opening recitative, ‘Sperate, o figli! Iddio del suo poter diè segno,’ with authority, and the bass’s phrasing in the cavatina, ‘D'Egitto là su i lidi,’ was suave. A climactic top note was cracked and nearly lost, but Mr. Gangestad recovered to give a burly account of his cabaletta, ‘Comme notte a sol fulgente.’ He anchored ensembles solidly, and his line ‘Chi il passo agl'empi apriva’ in the Act One finale was sung with the force of a whip. ‘Tu sul labbro,’ Zaccaria’s andante Preghiera in Act Two was sung with due gravitas, and the andante mosso Profezia in Act Three, ‘Del futuro nel bujo discerno,’ was exclaimed with gusto, the top F♯s troublesome but managed. His comforting of Fenena in Act Four, ‘Va: la palma del martirio, va, conquista, o giovinetta,’ was affecting, and there was an indication of compassion for Abigaille in the opera’s final scene. Despite the variety in Mr. Gangestad’s acting, there was very little in his singing. The same flinty tones, strongest in the middle octave of the voice, served for all of Zaccaria’s moods. As a result, the character was more antagonistic than pastoral, and when his face displayed tenderness the voice did not respond in kind.

Interestingly, in the years since the rôle was created by the future Signora Verdi, Giuseppina Strepponi, almost none of the most successful Abigailles on stage or on records—Maria Callas, Elena Souliotis, Margherita Roberti, Pauline Tinsley, Marisa Galvany, Rita Hunter, Ghena Dimitrova—have been Italian. The notable exceptions are Anita Cerquetti, whose brief career was crowned with a rousing impersonation of the wayward princess pretender in the Netherlands in 1960, and Renata Scotto, whose recorded Abigaille with Riccardo Muti was perhaps ill-advised but is nonetheless exciting. Most importantly, though, Scotto reminded listeners of the Italianate qualities so often missing from portrayals of the part. She is a wild, willful character whose least-belligerent passages are hardly demure, but Abigaille is a musical cousin of Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Lucrezia Borgia, and even in fallible vocal estate Scotto restored a discernible lode of Italian bel canto to a rôle typically more evocative of the less-glorious tradition of ‘can belto.’ The lessons of Callas’s formidable musical accuracy, Solioutis’s abandon, Tinsley’s and Hunter’s resilience, Galvany’s fearlessness, Dimitrova’s raw strength, Cerquetti’s indomitable energy, and Scotto’s genuine Italian slancio clearly were learned and fully absorbed by American soprano Brenda Harris, who gave Opera Carolina an Abigaille comparable with the best in the world, past and present. Hers was not an Abigaille of unstinting vocal steel but one from whose emotional insecurity and dramatic instability the galvanizing outbursts arose organically, like the spews of steam from geothermals. At her entrance with ‘Guerreri, è preso il tempio’ in the Act One trio with Fenena and Ismaele, it was apparent that this Abigaille was a woman deeply wounded by unrequited love. In the lento ‘Prode guerrier! d’amore conosci tu sol l’armi,’ Ms. Harris gave evidence of her bel canto credentials. Then taking the wide intervals ascending to F♯, G, A, and B and the coloratura flourishes on ‘di mia vendetta il fulmine su voi sospeso è già’ in stride, she showed barely-containable contempt for Fenena and still-potent affection for Ismaele, stroking his arm lovingly in ‘Io t’amava! il regno, il cuore,’ her top Cs secure and dramatically cogent. She launched the Act One finale with a brash ‘Viva Nabucco,’ and her voicing of the ascending scales on repetitions of ‘cadrà’ were electrifying. Her recitative at the start of Act Two, ‘Ben io t'invenni, o fatal scritto,’ was imaginatively uttered, the rise to top B♭ on ‘Oh inqui tutti, e più folli ancor!’ and the fearsome two-octave descent from C6 to C4 on ‘o fatal sdegno’ not merely endured but truly conquered. The exquisite andante cantabile aria ‘Anch'io dischiuso un giorno ebbi alla gioia il core,’ its melodic lines not unlike those of ‘Casta diva’ in Bellini's Norma, was artfully phrased, and the lightness of touch that Ms. Harris brought to the section starting with ‘piange va all'altrui pianto,’ the music so like that for the title character in Giovanna d'Arco, was refreshing. Her singing of the notorious cabaletta ‘Salgo già del trono aurato’ was fiery but controlled. She not only mastered the coloratura and top Cs, including the traditional interpolated C at the cabaletta’s end, but also offered genuine trills. Her singing of ‘Ma del popolo di Belo non fia spento lo splendor’ in the Act Two finale was similarly exuberant. The duet with Nabucco in Act Three inspired Ms. Harris to even more refined singing, the eruption of coloratura on ‘Tale ti rendo, o misero, il foglio menzogner!’ that took her to top B♭ delivered with pinpoint precision. Her voicing of ‘Oh dell'ambita gloria giorno tu sei venuto!’ and ‘Di morte è suono per gli Ebrei che tu dannasti!’ was goading, but in ‘Deh perdona, deh perdona ad un padre che delira’ there were fleeting signs of pity for Nabucco that softened the edge of Abigaille’s treachery. In the opera’s final scene, Ms. Harris devoted the best of her artistry to her account of Abigaille’s death, singing the andante moderato ‘Su me morente esanime discenda il tuo perdono!’ with profoundly moving simplicity and poise. Understandably, Ms. Harris’s singing occasionally sounded slightly cautious, but she was as persuasive and vocally accomplished an Abigaille as could be heard anywhere in the world today and a worthy successor to the handful of great Abigailles of the past.

Baritone Gordon Hawkins is one of America’s least-heralded important singers. Ever an instrument of malleable but unbreakable bronze, his voice is now polished to a bright, shining surface that rests upon a column of powerful, ably-projected tone. As Nabucco in this performance, he was a figure who ferocity was as piercing as his madness was touching. A man with an imposing physique, Mr. Hawkins bestrode the stage with the savagery of a monarch whose neuroses were unleashed by absolute authority. His voicing of his opening ‘Di Dio che parli?’ was tentative, but his account of the andante ‘Tremin gl’insani del mio, del mio furore’ was expansive. He brought the curtain down in the Act One finale with growling pronouncements of ‘O vinti, il capo a terra!’ and the presto ‘Mio furor, non più costretto.’ Mr. Hawkins’s gleaming top F in ‘Dal capo mio la prendi’ in the Act Two finale ushered in a beautifully-phrased account of the andantino ‘S’appresan gl’istanti d’un’ira fatale,’ the dauntingly high tessitura managed with little evidence of strain. The repeated Fs in the adagio ‘Oh! mia figlia!’ were fired like missiles, and the baritone detonated a series of dramatic blasts in ‘Ah! perchè, perchè sul ciglio una lagrima.’ In the duet with Abigaille in Act Three, Mr. Hawkins sang ‘Oh di qual’onta aggravasi questo mio crin canuto!’ with touching dignity, and the profundity of his sorrow in ‘Deh perdona’ was heartbreaking. Nabucco must wait until Act Four for his aria, and Mr. Hawkins’s singing made it worth the wait for the audience, as well. His response to the offstage chorus’s intoning of Fenena’s impending death in ‘Son pur queste mie membra!’ was deeply felt, and his shaping of Verdi’s melodic lines in the largo aria ‘Dio di Giuda!’ was marvelous. The cabaletta ‘O prodi miei, seguitemi, s’apre alla mente il giorno’ was commandingly sung, the restoration of Nabucco’s reason evinced by Mr. Hawkins’s roof-raising top notes. In the Act Four finale, his forceful ‘Empi, fermate! L’idol funesto, guerrier, frangete qual polve al suol largo a piacere’ was complemented by an unusually sympathetic delivery of ‘Ah torna Israello, torna alle gioie, alle gioie del patrio suol.’ Though Mr. Hawkins acted admirably, the production’s blocking did not always make ideal use of the singer’s bounding physicality, and only the text—and Mr. Hawkins’s clear enunciation of it—made the waning and recovery of Nabucco’s mental prowess apparent. Like Ms. Harris’s Abigaille, however, it would be a fool’s errand to seek a more potent Nabucco than Mr. Hawkins’s.

Nabucco is an undeniably imperfect opera in which passages of sublime melodic beauty alternate with banalities. The young Verdi was still learning his craft and adapting the lessons learned from his predecessors and contemporaries to his own designs, but there are in Nabucco plentiful seeds that grew into the fragrantly exotic blossoms of Verdi’s maturity. Opera Carolina’s Nabucco was an imperfect production that ultimately did not trust Verdi’s characters to bear the burden of engaging the audience with their plights. Abigaille, Fenena, Ismaele, Nabucco, and Zaccaria certainly are not Aida, Amneris, Radamès, Amonasro, and Ramfis, but they have their own public and private torments that Verdi brought to life with a score that, even in its moments of triviality, is irresistibly tuneful. Though the production failed them, the first-rate cast that Opera Carolina assembled for Nabucco thankfully responded to the music as it deserves.

IN PERFORMANCE: the Opera Carolina Chorus performing 'Va, pensiero' in Verdi's NABUCCO at Opera Carolina [Photo by jonsilla.com, © 2014 by Opera Carolina]Va, pensiero: the Opera Carolina Chorus singing the famed chorus in Verdi’s Nabucco at Opera Carolina [Photo by jonsilla.com, © 2014 by Opera Carolina]