Review: LA Opera’s Production of Nabucco Is a Biblical Story Framed Within Verdi’s Period

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigail in LA Opera’s Nabucco (Ken Howard/LA Opera)

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigail in LA Opera’s Nabucco (Ken Howard/LA Opera)

As the audience walked into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for Los Angeles Opera’s current production of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco on opening night, Saturday, Oct. 14, they were greeted by an unusual look to the stage. There – prominent as a background and set back several feet from the front of the stage – was a large image of what looked like a frieze from some ancient civilization depicting a chariot scene, flanked on the left side by three balcony boxes and a series of front footlights that were adorned by a row of flowers.

As maestro James Conlon conducted the overture, a series of events happened in this front “mini-stage” that alluded to another period in time rather than the context of the opera, which is set in biblical times during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, the Babylonian king, thus the title Nabucco. It took me a little time to realize that this was a theatrical design trick to present this opera as though we, the audience, were part of a 19th-century performance during the lifetime of the composer.

As the scrim with the image of the frieze was lifted, we were taken into the biblical world of the story, starting with the temple of Solomon in the old city of Jerusalem. Here, the Hebrews awaited the arrival of the conquering Babylonian army as they prayed for their own survival.

The High Priest Zaccaria, played by the towering bass-baritone Morris Robinson, told his people not to despair in the breathtaking aria “D’Egitto là su i lidi (On the shores of Egypt He saved the life of Moses).” In this role, Robinson was a force of nature with a voice so powerful and rich that it could bring the temple down. The LA Opera Chorus, under the direction of maestro Grant Gershon, pulled off an outstanding presentation, as this opera is full of gorgeous melodies tailored for groups.

Hidden in the temple was Felena, the biological daughter of Nabucco (Maestro Placido Domingo), sung wonderfully by Venezuelan-Canarian mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera, who has fallen in love with Ismaele (Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang), a Hebrew, while he was imprisoned by the Babylonians. I first saw Chang win the three male prizes (opera, zarzuela and audience choice) at the 2014 Operalia voice competition that was held at the Dororthy Chandler Pavilion and was impressed by the beauty and power of his voice. He did not disappoint in this production with wonderful phrasing and timbre, especially in his duos with Herrera.

The supposed eldest of Nabucco’s daughters had infiltrated the temple along with several Babylonian guards and soon discovered that not only was her sister Felena there, but that she was a rival for Ismaele’s love. The tempestuous Abigaille, Ukranian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska, took on one of the most demanding roles in opera with intensity, power and a stage presence of unequal caliber. Her high notes were pure and strong, and her pianissimos were some of the most beautiful and far reaching I have ever heard live. Her second act entrance and subsequent performance of “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno (I too once opened my heart to happiness)” was a tour de force to behold and listen, as she discovered that she is not Nabucco’s biological daughter but that of a slave.

As Nabucco, Domingo proved once again that he can command not just huge ticket sales judging by the sold-out crowd, but dominate the stage of important opera houses all around the world. The man is not only a living legend but he is still able to pull off powerful performances as few can. OK, so he is not quite a baritone, but his voice was still powerful, rich, expressive and his acting abilities were unparalleled.

Conlon and the LA Opera Orchestra were superb along with the direction and set design by Thaddeus Strassberger, who got a lot of historical context and depth with a more traditional take on the look of the opera. The costumes by Mattie Ullrich and lighting by Mark McCullough rounded out the aesthetic of the production nicely.

After a thunderous, standing ovation, something unusual happened onstage. The entire cast began to interact with the actors on the “mini stage” as they sang the piece “Va pensiero,” also known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from the opera’s third act as large Italian flags were brought onstage. Some scholars view this song as having political significance during Verdi’s time and may also resonate during today’s difficult political scenario.

Humberto Capiro is a Contributing Writer for Living Out Loud - LA, covering lifestyle and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter: @HumbertoCapiro

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