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Nabucco at Minnesota Opera with Howard, Relyea and Vargas
© Michal Daniel 2012
That Minnesota Opera, now generally associated with the bel canto repertoire and with new work, chose Verdi's Nabucco to open its fiftieth season came as something of a surprise. Nabucco, the composer's third opera, sometimes resembles a mutant oratorio; though it constitutes a turning point in the composer's career, it scarcely hints at the glories to come. Its dramaturgy is clumsy, its characterizations thin. Were it not for "Va, pensiero," that most poignant of choruses, the score would seldom see the light. But the venturesome Twin Cities company hasn't reached the half-century mark by misjudging its audience. And by offering Thaddeus Strassberger's artful production, first mounted last spring by Washington National Opera, together with a superlative cast, Minnesota Opera brought the first-night crowd to its feet on September 22.
The action of Nabucco, which had its world premiere at La Scala in 1842, is generally understood as a censor-circumventing allegory of the nascent Italian nation under Austria's yoke: "the Hebrews of Nabucco," wrote Isaiah Berlin, "were Italians in captivity." Strassberger sought to resurrect a smattering of the work's political resonance, enclosing its quasi-Biblical narrative in a mid-nineteenth-century frame. Making deft use of Nabucco's overture and subsequent orchestral passages, the director/designer (whose period-flavored trompe l'oeil sets were alive with color) conjured the atmosphere of occupied Milan in the 1840s, seating surrogates for the opera's original audience in boxes at the edge of the stage and absorbing them into the spectacle. Strassberger's staging was, perhaps, more arresting in conception than in execution. But it served to prepare a transformative reprise of "Va, pensiero" — a crowning coup de théâtre, complete with tricolore, achievable in no other way. Mattie Ullrich's costumes and JAX Messenger's lighting (which leaned on the earlier work of Mark McCullough) enriched the stage picture; choreographer Heidi Spesard-Noble took full advantage of the brief opportunities the score offered her.
The singing was remarkable. Pride of place goes to soprano Brenda Harris, a local favorite, who not only faced down the famously treacherous role of Abigaille but humanized the character, offering nuance where others are content to scream. Bass John Relyea's sonorous Zaccaria was at once commanding and poetic; baritone Jason Howard realized both the grandiosity and the pathos of the title role. Resident artists Victoria Vargas (Fenena) and John Robert Lindsey (Ismaele) made a strong showing. And in his first appearance as the company's music director, conductor Michael Christie demonstrated the wisdom of his appointment; despite the occasional crudeness of Verdi's writing, orchestra and chorus have rarely sounded better.
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