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Seattle Opera

In REview Seattle Opera Nabucco hdl 1115
Hurt and Barton, Nabucco and Fenena in Seattle
© Elise Bakketun

SEATTLE OPERA's new production of Verdi’s Nabucco (seen Aug. 8 and 9) eliminated the orchestra-pit gulf between audience and singers by placing orchestra and conductor onstage and principals on an over-the-pit extension. The chorus performed mostly from behind the orchestra but was up front for “Va, pensiero.” With so much of the action taking place behind conductor Carlo Montanaro, monitors (plus assistant conductor Philip A. Kelsey in a prompter’s box) helped hold everything together. Compared to the usual setup, solo voices seemed bigger and more viscerally present, the orchestra clearer if more distant.

Ginette Grenier’s costumes were traditional, but the only three-dimensional set element was a throne chair in parts III and IV. Robert Bonniol’s video projections, ranging from amusingly literal (hanging plants for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon) to bewilderingly abstract, neither enhanced nor harmed the production. As with supertitles, one could choose to dwell on, glance briefly at or ignore them. My attention went to the thrust-forward singers first and the unusually visible orchestra and conductor second.

Verdi’s over-the-top opera and its extreme characters may be more culpable than stage director François Racine and the cast, but with the singers so prominent, it was unfortunate that only Christian Van Horn as the high priest Zaccaria created a completely convincing character. Van Horn also dominated vocally, his bass-baritone magnificent and handsome high and low. He impressively sustained the Part II prayer’s low G, and he and the chorus made the often-anticlimactic cabaletta following “Va, pensiero” even more stirring than the great chorus had been. Fenena, with less to sing, was luxuriously cast with mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, creamy and beautiful in the Part I trio and the Part IV cavatina. As her Ismaele, tenor Russell Thomas sang with power and intense passion.

But artists cast in the two central roles proved problematic. Mary Elizabeth Williams was a wild, exciting Abigaille who won a big ovation at curtain call, but her vibrato-less high notes made pitch deviation obvious, and she sagged flat a few times; some midrange tones were excruciating blasts. When she turned down the volume and the attitude in her Part II scene, her singing was attractive. Gordon Hawkins, who had been consistently fine in many Seattle Opera roles, was sadly unrecognizable as Nabucco — his vibrato wide, his timbre gray, his characterization blank. He essayed “Deh, perdona” and “Dio di Giuda” at an extreme pianissimo over a barely audible orchestra, which came off as a stunt, and had trouble sustaining the legato line.

The next day, the alternate Nabucco, Weston Hurt, sang those passages at a normal single piano, held the line and won sympathy for the humbled king, though Hurt’s baritone too was monochromatic. The alternate Abigaille, petite Raffaella Angeletti, wielded a lean soprano that sliced like a sword, clean and pitch-true. The alternate Zaccaria, Andreas Bauer, was a basso profundo whose tone broadened at the bottom.

Terraced dynamics marked both the lustrous choral singing and the orchestral playing. Montanaro conducted with Muti-like verve and sprung rhythms. —Mark Mandel 

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