The 2012-2013 season at the Minnesota Opera marks the 50th anniversary of the company, and it opened last September with five performances of Verdi’s Nabucco, which played to packed houses throughout its run. In many ways, the quality of this presentation signaled how far this company has come: From its fringe beginnings to its current standing as one of the most important operatic destinations in the United States. In terms of cast and production values, any opera house in the world would be hard pressed to better Minnesota’s efforts.
A co-production with Washington National Opera, this production of Nabucco is the brainchild of set designer/director Thaddeus Strassberger. Seeking to recreate the sets that Verdi would have been familiar with at the time of the opera’s premiere, Strassberger has gone back to painted backcloths, even going as far as seeking artists still trained in the art of hand scene painting. There were even flowers lining up the footlights on the stage, so as the curtain opened, the audience could have easily been attending an 18th century performance. While it is not customary for newoutpost.com to lavish much attention on the work of directors in opera (we believe, in fact, that the customary preoccupation with them shifts the focus away from what’s important in our beloved art form,) Strassberger deserves major credit for facilitating the opera in arguably the way it was meant to be experienced.
We are always told, nowadays at least, that this sort of treatment (ie: setting the opera in the manner that the score requests) is safe, boring, tired, and will turn off modern audiences. But the result could not have been further from this. Strassberger’s colorful sets beautifully framed the proceedings and immediately immersed the audience into the action, always gracing the performance without ever distracting from it. In fact, having this rare opportunity to witness this brand of set design in action, it struck me how perfectly these sets function within the operatic convention. When the eye fully focused on the backcloths, the sets were beautiful yet obviously flat, but as the eye veered its attention towards the principals (aided by rich costumes created for the occasion by designer Mattie Ullrich), the peripheral view created an immediate illusion of inexplicable depth. These “smoke behind the mirror” techniques ultimately proved to be beautiful, efficient and appropriate for the lyric stage.
Where Strassberger falls short is in his work as director, which unfortunately does not match the perfection of his set design. Applied against the proceedings was an overall superfluous attempt to recreate the political climate of Verdi’s time and the opera’s role in the Risorgimento movement. Strassberger framed the stage with boxes reminiscent of those at La Scala, and during the opera’s overture members of the occupying Austrian nobility and army were seen antagonizing Italian citizens and occupying the boxes, at times even blocking the entrance cues in some scenes. For instance, during the famous and historic “Va pensiero,” the Italian backstage crew was seen behind the sets silently echoing the sentiments of the exiled Hebrews. Strassberger went as far as halting the curtain calls at the end of the performance and reintroducing the cast for an a cappella rendition the famous chorus, with the Italian text flashing over the super titles suggesting the audience into a sing a long. It all seemed very well meaning yet unfortunately forced. Opening night audience reacted better to this sing along portion than subsequent audiencea, and one wondered if this treatment would have been better received by an Italian audience where Va pensiero is the equivalent of “America the beautiful” in the United States. Strassberger’s second blunder came in his attempt to resolve the opera’s unsatisfactory fourth part, which we admit is rather lame when assessed at face value (Nabucco converts to Christianity and Abigaille feels so sorry for taking over the throne that she poisons herself. Burp.) The play from which Verdi’s librettist Temistocle Solera based his libretto upon has Fenena being killed off but returned to life by Jehovah, and Abigaille killed by her surrogate father for her wickedness. One almost wishes the libretto would reflect this ending, but it is not the case, and in his effort to fix things Strassberger has set the entire fourth act as Nabucco’s dream. Everything that takes place from here on is Nabucco’s delirious wish of how things should ultimately play out, but this deviation ultimately confused a large part of the audience (I, for instance, had to flip through the booklet), and while this application “works” on certain levels, the overall reaction inspires a disappointed shake of the head: “Let well alone” it seems to cry. And yet despite these directorial shortcomings, or rather because of them, Strassberger’s set design remains to this date the most compelling argument for truly traditional staging that we have had the pleasure to experience.
Leading from the pit was conductor (and Minnesota Opera’s new Music Director) Michael Christie. The young conductor was recently named part of the new generation of opera’s rising stars by Opera News and conducted Kevin Puts’ new opera Silent Night into a Pulitzer prize earlier this year. His very ascend to the podium electrified the opening night audience, which erupted into enthusiastic applause. As applied to the work at hand, the maestro’s reading of this early Verdi work was surprisingly distinguished when taking into account that this is one of his first forays into this repertoire. He efficiently balanced the orchestra and soloists during some of the most complicated ensembles, and at times (particularly during the massive opening chorus sequences and the finale of the opera’s second part) generated a brilliant vitality from the pit. On the other hand, the more rough and tumble aspects of this repertoire were missed under the maestro’s fastidious baton, and though his beat was clear, it sometimes marred the proceedings by leaning towards the allegro. One trusts that with more time and exposure he will soon milk the surefire moments to be found in these old Italian scores, those soulful cantinelas (such as the “va pensiero” reference in the opera’s overture for instance) meant to be savored and showcased with love. On the upside, the stellar lineup of principals more than compensated for any stylistic gaps.
Making his Minnesota Opera debut in the role of the Zaccaria, bass John Relyea was the first principal to face the terrifying vocal demands made by the young Verdi. The High Priest is to emerge from an epic choral introduction and reset the Hebrews’ courage in his opening recitative “Sperate, o figli!” Here, Mr. Relyea’s big and authoritative voice delivered the effect. But Verdi asks for more than that. Once the High Priest has silenced the masses, he must inspire them by way of the cavatina “D’Egitto là sui lidi”, a number distinguished by a torturous tessitura spanning from low G to a stratospheric F sharp, which Mr. Relyea managed brilliantly. He finished the scene with a rousing cabaletta “Come notte a sol fulgente”, and despite an occasional tightness in the higher extremes, the basso’s imposing instrument was enthusiastically received. Zaccaria has two additional scenes of significance, the second taking place in the opera’s second part in the preghiera “Tu sul labbro de’ veggenti “. Unlike the disjunct nature of his act one scene, the prayer is a cantabile of a certain flighty structure, richly accompanied by six cellos, directly implying the need for a singer with a decadent instrument to justify such foundation. Again, Mr. Relyea answered the call, bathing the auditorium in dark, bass chocolate. The andante pace allowed the ear to investigate this luxurious voice. The voice has a solid core between middle C to low C, and is best heard when allowed to expand along the lines of an adagio. Past this point, there were some minor reservations. Things get a little tense when the singer ascended past middle C, and many a times Zaccaria’s music takes the bass up to an E, and sometimes beyond, such as in the final scene in the opera’s third part where Zaccaria dominates the proceedings after the famous chorus “Va pensiero.” This segment, “Del futuro nel bujo discerno”, climbs up to a couple of sustained Fs where Mr. Relyea tightened significantly. But this minor reservation did not take much away from an otherwise outstanding presentation.
A greater caveat was reserved for the work of baritone Jason Howard singing the title role. Mr. Howard, a veteran of many seasons with the Minnesota Opera, is a devastatingly handsome man who cuts a more than agreeable figure across the footlights. Yet despite an alert physical interpretation, his was not the most musically idiomatic of Nabuccos. Throughout the evening, though his voice projected loudly and competitively over the orchestra, it did so frequently to the detriment of his tone. Whether this was caused by a lack of technical control or basic natural endowment would warrant further listening, but when pressed for volume (and usually by way of a broad approach) the voice significantly whitened and emphasized the unevenness of his scale.
(Jason Howard=Stud muffin)
These ingredients make for an unfortunate recipe as applied to Italian music, and following his introductory lines Nabucco opens an ensemble, “Tremin gl’insani del mio furore,” where he must establish a melodic figure for the other principals to interact with. Here, Mr. Howard’s baritone had difficulty wrapping itself around the phrases, contrasting poorly when his colleagues responded with their own retorts. It is also not a warm sound, so the baritone’s better moments were mostly found during declamatory passages rather than when shaping the Italian melody, the problem here being that Verdi requires proficiency in both skills. These disparities reduced the value of his participation and hampered the effect of his big scene, which introduces the opera’s fourth part, but not completely. After an orchestral introduction echoing the ruler’s sorry predicament and weakened mental state led to the dramatic recitative “Son pur queste mie membra,” Mr. Howard’s uneven production and committed acting actually facilitated the portrayal of a frenzied, fallen villain. True to form, the cantabile of his aria “Dio di Giuda” was at best labored and did not impress as a religious conversion (really, choose Satan), but by then his best moment had already passed. This being the duet in the opera’s third part, where Abigaille (played here by the excellent Brenda Harris,) is confronted by Nabucco in the fascinating duet: “Donna, chi sei?” This scene, a veritable game of cat and mouse, placed the two principals in a square face off, and perhaps encouraged by his excellent colleague, Mr. Howard rose to the occasion, treating the audience to that fortunate moment in live performance when an inspired interaction raises the artistic bench on the whole of the proceedings.
The baritone entered the stage with an intimate sotto voce in his comments to Abdallo, and immediately reverted to a boisterous tone as he uttered a defiant “Donna, chi sei?” As the confrontation cornered the ruler, Mr. Howard played his last card and rose over the orchestra to revealed the reality of her station through a tense stream of sound, only to be brushed aside by Ms. Harris’ stunning full voiced ascend to the high B flat. The defeated king sank to the ground by way of uneven andante “Oh di qual’ onta aggravasi,” made more than legitimate by the situation at hand, contrasted by Ms. Harris’ decadent vocal grand standings ranging from low C to a high B flat. Mr. Howard’s desperation increased during the tempo di mezzo, which in turn inspired the richest chest resonance of the evening from Ms. Harris as she dismissed him with the terrifying line “che disprezza il tuo poter!” The closing stretta “Deh perdona” left the audience with a groveling Nabucco being led away by guards as the hackling Abigaille gloated over her victory. It proved to be Mr. Howard’s most successful musico-dramatico moment of the evening, and thus it is here where we choose to close our assessment of his performance.
This allows us to segue into the work of soprano Brenda Harris, who was recently heard in Minnesota as Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux. A casual glance at the company’s archives, however, reveal a relationship between the Minnesota Opera and the singer going as far back as the 1992 season, when the company entrusted the young and promising soprano with the title role in Rossini’s Armida. Ever since, she was asked to return time and time again, in roles both designed to nurture and challenge her proclivities (Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, the four heroines in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Rossini’s Semiramide, Bellini’s Norma, Camila in Mercandate’s Orazi e Curiazi, just to name a few). This journey now takes her to the exuberant role of Abigaille, an impossible assignment under any consideration. Like her prior excursions (Norma, Lady Macbeth and Roberto Devereux), Abigaille is a vocally comprehensive role, but taken to the extreme. Bombastic volume, intricate florid passagework, connected trills, extreme octave drops, a mastery of legato, soft singing…everything is asked of her, and if Verdi’s design is executed properly, Abigaille will (and should) dominate every scene. This is exactly what took place during the opening night presentation. Following the performance, one could only praise Minnesota Opera in helping foster this artist into what she has now become: A monster.
Ms. Harris is only afforded a line of warm up before tackling her first big challenge: The infamous “Prode guerrier”, which acts as a sample of what awaits the singer for the rest of the evening. Unheard of for a soprano, the phrase opens with a sustained basement low B, which then breaks out into a hysterical cadenza hovering over both extremes of the range. In terms of precision and fluidity, Ms. Harris was the mistress of her craft, using the language and the pyrotechnics to create a threatening atmosphere. When the outburst mellowed into the trio “Io t’amava,” the vocal persona deliciously changed in the key phrase “Ah! se m’ami, ancor potrei il tuo popol salvar!” as she pressed the ungrateful Ismaele close to her and offered one last chance to change his mind. The trio swayed back and forth, capped at each swing with a sustained high C, which Ms. Harris reprised through an unearthly subito pianissimo. One marveled at how this artist, after having slayed the acrobatic requirements set before her bar after bar, was able to further stun by spinning an enormous yet quiet sound. While some may take reservation with a mild unsteadiness in her sustained chest tones during this introductory scene, Ms. Harris quickly oiled up her resources, and transitioned to the finale of the act with an ascent to a high F sharp with the cry of “Viva Nabucco,” which dwarfed the chorus and bounced through the auditorium. Her participation in the final ensemble “Tremin gl’insani del mio furore” was equally spellbinding. Here, Ms Harris’s full voiced handling of the intricate divisions placed her efforts in the company of past legendary exponents of this role, and even here, it certainly ranks amongst one its most complete realizations. The voice is, as we have noted in past assessments, of one piece. The color and quality of tone remain virtually unchanged as she goes up and down the scale at different dynamics. This relentlessly focused emission became a feature unto itself as the evening progressed, and the opera’s second part set the stage for further confirmation of the singer’s overpowering resources. The curtain opens with a standard compound aria, beginning with a dramatic and testing recitativo accompagnato. “Ben io t’invenni, o fatal scritto,” with its dizzying drop from the C to low C, held no terrors for Ms. Harris. She navigated the endless legato line of the classic cavatina “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno ebbi alla gioia il core” with exceptional panache, and noteworthy was her treatment of the cadenza on the phrase “mi torna un giorno sol,” achieved here through a diminished messa voce that galvanized the auditorium into a hysterical ovation. She closed the curtain with the required cabaletta, “Salgo già del trono aurato”, a tour de force in bravura singing through which Ms. Harris served as further confirmation of the benefits in casting this part with a singer reared in the bel canto tradition. Every note, every connected trill, every descending scale was there. The cabaletta was repeated, without any abbreviation or simplification, and the soprano closed the scene with a stentorian high C. For the opera’s final scene, the soprano reserved some of her warmest tones, her voice dripping with morbidezza, pointing to the composer who would later on write “La forza del destino.” The number of august sopranos who have tackled this impossible assignment is very short, in fact a few of them even left the list in shambles, but thus far Ms. Harris has entered their ranks in triumph.
The lesser roles were also mostly well served. The role of Fenena was tackled by the young mezzo-soprano Victoria Vargas, who lavished the part with a well-focused, sizeable Italianate voice, frequently reminiscent of Gabriella Carturan or even a young Fiorenza Cossotto. Her participation was doubly promising when taking into account that this young singer has primarily focused her efforts in comprimario assignments (in fact, she sang Anna last year in Minnesota’s presentation of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda). The role of Fenena is sometimes used as a stepping-stone to bigger assignments, and this November Minnesota will test her courage in another intriguing, medium sized role which promises to fit her like a glove: Smeton in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. It would seem that this future Amneris is patiently biding her time in the tradition of the legendary Giulietta Simionato, and we applaud her decision. A lesser success was the Ismaele of John Robert Lindsey, possessor of a big lyric tenor voice of an attractive color, yet made to function as a spinto through some uncomfortable abuse. Bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba was a sturdy voiced High Priest, who took every opportunity to milk the histrionic opportunities afforded by his costume, while tenor Jon Thomas Olson’s Abdallo was strangely miscast as a military figure, though his soft edged voice generally worked perfectly to offset the superior resources of the principals. Finally, the tiny role of Anna was handled by soprano Christie Hageman, a voice that quite honestly did not attract much attention during the usual comings and goings that make up the life of the comprimario, but seriously impressed as it rode the ensemble in the final concertato “Immenso Jehovah”. In fact, when coupled with Ms. Vargas darker tones, both singers merged into an exquisite spinto soprano voice. She is one to watch.
The Minnesota Opera’s 2012-2013 season continues this November with Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. The company’s rugged season will also include Thomas’ Hamlet, Puccini’s Turandot and Douglas J. Cuomo’s new composition: Doubt. For more information, visit the Minnesota Opera’s website at: http://www.mnopera.org/