Prayer was certainly a large part of the young composer’s life in 1841. The twenty-eight-year old’s wife and two children had suddenly died, his own health was precarious, and his most recent opera had been a dismal failure.
Out of this plagued life came his first triumph, Nabucco, the tale of the people of God, enslaved by the forces of evil, the conversion of their enemies, and their eventual deliverance through faithful prayer alone.
Certainly it was no coincidence that the Lyric Opera’s third production of this great work coincided with Chicago’s seventh annual Pray Chicago, an event bringing together Chicago’s people of God of all colors, young and old, united in one faithful heart, petitioning the Almighty to deliver their community from their captivity by the forces of gang violence and intimidation. The Reverend James Meeks said, “if there is anything Chicago needs and desires it’s prayer.” The Reverend Donovan Price says, “Prayer is our weapon of warfare.”
Their words echo the cries of the persecuted people of God in today’s middle east.
And their prayers echo the words of Nabucco’s people of God gloriously soaring from the Civic Opera House stage to sold-out houses.
Verdi’s music and the story of the 585 BC destruction of the temple of Jerusalem with the subsequent captivity of the Israelites by the Assyrians of King Nebuchadnezzar also brings some of the strongest dramatic singing you are likely to hear.
At the top of the strong dramatic singing list is Tatiana Serjan as the warrior princess Abigaille.
Critics and audience members alike utter her name in the same breath as the name “Maria Callas”.
And the comparison is neither hype nor hyperbole.
Like Ms. Callas, Ms. Serjan has a tremendously powerful and intense dramatic soprano voice. The role of Abigaille is made to showcase such a voice. (In fact, the 1963 Lyric production of Nabucco was dedicated to the recent death of the grand dame of Chicago opera, Rosa Raisa, whose Serjan-like voice gave her the nickname “Raisa de Roofa”.)
However, Ms. Serjan is not just a magnificent rare voice.
Ms. Serjan is, like Ms. Callas, one of the finest dramatic operatic actresses you will ever see.
She listens with purposeful intensity. She uses her properties, costumes, stage furniture and settings to convey her innermost thoughts and feelings even while silent. It is next to impossible to take one’s eyes off of her once she is on stage. Her presence is mesmerizing.
Maria Callas explained her great success, “There is God. I have been touched by God’s finger.”
Ms. Serjan has likewise been touched by God’s finger.
Only the finest of co-stars could survive on stage beside Ms. Serjan. And the Lyric Opera has provided the best for this Nabucco.
Baritone Zeljko Lucic as Nabucco, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Fenena, Nabucco’s virtuous daughter, bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as Zaccaria, and tenor Sergei Skorokhodov as Ismaele give Ms. Serjan plenty to play with and against.
Renee Fleming has described grand opera as the World Wrestling Federation of musical theater.
With that analogy, this Nabucco is the season’s WrestleMania – only the greatest of voices are here.
And the chorus! Michael Black has outdone himself this go round.
Nabucco’s people of God function as a main character in Verdi’s action. The Lyric chorus, plus supplementary singers, make for a group of almost one hundred voices to create the most magnificent of sounds. The famous, “Va pensiero”, inspired by Psalm 137, is one of the highlights, not only of the production, but also of the 2015-2016 season.
In a stunning scene of moving clouds, and garbed in grey-white rags, the choral moment evokes images of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, as the magnificent setting by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Jane Greenwood, lighting and projections by Duane Schuler and Chris Maravich conspire to move the ancient tale into universal realms by hinting at various historical particulars.
Director Matthew Ozawa had a difficult assignment. The original 1997 production, which this production seeks to revive, grew out of the close collaboration of Australian director Elijah Moshinsky and the designers Yeargen and Greenwood. The resulting designs of setting and costume facilitate Moshinsky’s interpretation of stage picturization and movement. Director Ozawa had to create within Moshinshy’s vision.
The results are mixed. The opera has power as staged by Mr. Ozawa. However, too often the chorus’ movement is literally only pedestrian rather than imaginative, and too many instrumental moments, which could be used to move characters creatively, revealing emotional states, intentions, or relationships are totally static. Occasionally Mr. Ozawa gives a weak stage or body movement to a signer whose words are strong, thereby undercutting the power of the moment. And almost everyone in the cast moves in the same pseudo-reverential tempo-rhythm. Variety would help.
Finally, the Verdi master conductor Carlo Rizzi takes all of the various visual elements into consideration and communicates Verdi’s story through the wonderfully-inspired Lyric orchestra.
If you must select only one opera to see this year, I recommend Nabucco.