OPERA NEWS - Nabucco
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Passionstheater Oberammergau

IN 1634, the residents of Oberammergau vowed to perform a Passion Play in perpetuity if their village in Upper Bavaria was delivered from the Plague. Nearly 400 years later, Oberammergau’s Passion Play can be considered the world’s longest running show. Performed once a decade, it has earned the village worldwide fame and considerable wealth. Since 2000 the Passionstheater, a cavernous semi-enclosed auditorium that can seat nearly 5,000 has been used for other theatrical productions on non-Passion Play years. This summer for the first time the Passionstheater mounted an opera on its gargantuan stage.  The work chosen was Nabucco, presumably for its religious theme as well the lengthy role given to the chorus (seen July 3).  The production was by Christian Stückl. 

The chorus in Nabucco is among the most memorable aspects of Verdi’s early triumph and one of the guarantors of its enduring popularity. Members of the regular Passion Play Chorus joined with singers from other regional choirs for a 180 strong force that animated this production with the focused and homogeneous sound that contributes so greatly to the Passion Play’s emotional power. The massive onstage force sang with conviction and clarity, but delivered a surprisingly down-to-earth and unsentimental account of the opera’s most famous set-piece “Va pensiero.” Much of this effect had to do with the dramatically charged, fluid playing of the Neue Philharmonie München, one of Germany’s leading youth orchestras. Latvian conductor Ainars Rubikis, as fresh-faced as many of the musicians, was a light-handed and swift maestro, refusing to even pause after the famous chorus for an ovation, let alone repeat it, which is standard practice in some places, including the Arena di Verona.     

Unlike the works staged in the Roman amphitheater, this performance was amplified by necessity, which, however judiciously engineered, resulted in a certain flattening out of musical detail. Still, the chorus and orchestra’s preparedness, coordination and flair shone through the technological enhancements, as did the impressive work of the youthful and diverse main cast.

Evez Abdulla, an Azerbaijani baritone who is an ensemble member in Bonn, was frequently mesmerizing as the Babylonian King, although he convinced more in his movements of tyrannical hubris than when cowered by insanity. He could summon majestically rich and incisive tones for his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but wobbled a bit in his act three duet with Abigaille. The slave daughter turned usurper is the opera’s richest musical invention. With her firm and agile voice, Irina Rindzuner, a Russian soprano who appears often in the US, was more than up to the daunting role, although her singing often had a hard edge to it and she had a tendency to play up the histrionics. She proved herself capable of gentler effects with a reverent “Anch'io dischiuso un giorno.”    

Her sometime sister and rival in love, Fenena, was brought vividly to life by Virginie Verrez, a recent Juilliard graduate who was a winner at the 2015 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. In even, measured tones that seemed both youthful and rich with experience, the French mezzo sang with a fiery conviction that nevertheless allowed an affecting vulnerability to creep in. Balint Szabo, a Romanian bass, lent gravelly tones and crepuscular shadings to Zaccaria in both his character’s militant and devout moments. Out of the principal cast, tenor Attilio Glaser made the weakest impression as a bright-voiced but not terribly vivid Ismaele.   

Oberammergau-born director Christian Stückl, responsible for the Passion Play since 1990 (only Oberammergau natives and longtime residents are allowed to take part in that production; in 2010, half of the village did) delivered a grandly narrative production that was vaguely set amid some contemporary Middle East conflict. The Kalashnikov-wielding desert warriors, ground troops in full military gear, commanders in khaki fatigues, and the endless stream of refugees with head coverings and baggy dress brought to mind scenes from the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, and ISIS. 

Stückl’s point seemed to be that the world of the Nabucco, the birthplace of civilization along the Tigris and Euphrates (Babylon was located roughly fifty miles from modern-day Baghdad), still furnishes the world with an unending slew of political and religious conflicts. Amid the staging’s mix of contemporary and timeless elements stood Nebuchadnezzar himself, colorfully dressed like some sort of fairy-tale king and wearing an exaggeratedly pointy golden crown. It was as if he was a walking - or rather, horseback – anachronism, the figurehead of a despotic and pagan culture come to enslave the dispossessed of the earth. This drama played out on an extra-wide set that bore a resemblance to the two-level Market Gate of Miletus (not to mention its architectural similar to the main Passion Play set), and easily facilitated the entrances and exits of the large onstage force. Stückl used props and extra effects sparingly yet effectively, as in Nabucco’s horse and an unexpectedly massive whoosh of flame that struck the king once he proclaimed himself a god. All in all, it was an effective setting for the work, even if Stückl’s concept could have benefitted from some tightening. Among other things, it was for once refreshing not to see the ancient Hebrews swaying back and forth in their tallises, which for some reason seems to be the first thing that occurs to directors who come to this work. —A. J. Goldmann

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