This October, Opera Carolina inaugurated its 2014-15 season with a run of spectacular presentations of Verdi’s first hit, Nabucco. Encouraged by the promise of such inspired casting, your friends at Newoutpost made sure to be present for the event. In fact, the opening night presentation of October 18 proved to be such an artistic success, your editor was obliged to endure the horrors of Megabus in order to attend the opera’s final performance on October 26. With Nabucco, Verdi experienced his first taste of international success, and while the opera lacks a the voice the world would hear even in his immediate later works, such as I Lombardi and Ernani, it retained prime importance for being the opera that allowed the great master to become the premier voice of Italian opera the world over.. While it never fully left the international repertoire, it hardly maintained a prominent place within it, and thus its presence in the repertoire of a regional company is rare. The North Carolina company deserves much credit for choosing Nabucco as the opener for its 66th season.
The production, a new endeavor undertaken in conjunction with the Baltimore opera, is actually the company’s second production of Nabucco. Opera Carolina, in fact, debuted the opera back in 2003 with a massive production which came way via Opera Montreal, and the big draw that year was Mark Delevan’s first (and arguably best) stab at the title role. The memorable cast also included the boisterous Abigaille of soprano Rebecca Copley and the then unknown Kate Aldrich was Fenena, A jolly evening for sure if memory serves us right. For its current run, the production values have been significantly simplified through the work of designers Michael Baumgarten and Bernard Uzan. The mostly bare set was comprised of large squares depicting stone blocks which made up large flanking walls on both sides and rear of the stage. Bernard Uzan also occupied the director’s chair, favoring a more old fashioned, traditional approach in his arrangement of the stage blocking. Mr. Uzan often favored a more stoic style of presentation, allowing primarily for the establishment of the operatic archeotype, with further nuance taking place through the individual principal’s pantomime. Champions of a more contemporary style of acting may scoff at this treatment, but as a piece of dramaturgy Nabucco does not claim to be a Gesamtkunstwerk and hardly bothers to go beyond the constraints of a Rossini opera seria. Thus, Mr. Uzan did well to respect these boundaries and not push past the opera’s histronic limitations. He also did not bother to inject foreign explanations for the opera’s inexplicable ending. He had the courage to allow Nabucco to be what it is: Verdi’s vehicle towards later mastery. This is not to say that Mr. Uzan acted as a mere traffic controller between the chorus and the opera’s principals. A veritable interpretation, carried out mostly through the use of projected images upon the simple white sets, was applied to the proceedings, a gamble which produced mixed results. When used to establish an archeotype, such as Nabucco’s entrance in the first act or Abigaille’s ascend to the throne at the beginning of the third, the images proved an efficient and beautiful vehicle that propelled the drama forward. Others, like those utilized to depict the Assyrian King’s mental undoing at the end of the second act, struck some viewers as a creative use of an antiquated Windows 98 screen saver. Images used to evoke a feeling, such as the anachronistic medley depicting the plight of the Jewish people throughout the centuries during the famous “Va pensiero” proved more controversial, some accusing the decision as gratuitous and opportunistic. Your editor unashamedly reports having wiped two large tears following this particular sequence, and for the most part appreciated Mr. Uzan’s judicious use of modernity to the service of his overall old school approach.
Presiding over the forces in the pit, Maestro James Meena roused the members of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in a mercurial interpretation of the opera’s overture, bringing out true symphonic verve out of a piece which has been often dismissed as mere musical pastiche. This, along with the prelude to Nabucco’s scena in the fourth act, were carried out with significant polish and panache. At times these benefits got in the way, and the maestro’s symphonic flair would have done well to allow for greater balance between powers in the pit and the voices onstage. His excited brass section pinned several singers against the aural rock in more than one ocassion, even proving a formidable hurdle for the chours to conquer in the opera’s massive opening scene. Fortunately, the battle between pit and stage subsided as the evening wore on, and Maestro Meena managed a near pristine balance for the opera’s iconic chorus, “Va pensiero”, which was sung with great feeling by the outstanding members of the Opera Carolina Chorus.
Representing the hopes of all Hebrews was the Zaccaria of bass Andrew Gangestad, who had the daunting challenge of essaying one of the most difficult scenas for bass in all of opera right off the bat. His compound aria begins with a defiant recitative “Sperate, o figli!” which leads to the long ornate lines of the grandioso cavatina “D’Egitto la sui lidi”. The overall approach to the scene was tepid, Mr. Gangestad (like the chorus) an early victim of the overly robust support emanating from the pit, had significant difficulty making his point travel throughout the auditorium. The subsequent cabaletta, “Come notte a sol fulgente” posed greater difficulty, with the singer’s open production rendering the top unsteady and somewhat forced, leading to some simplification in passagework and a chancy stab at the aria’s top Es and Fs. To his credit, the singer introduced some clever deviations during the cabaletta’s reprise, somewhat alleviating the general insecurity of this introductory number. The young bass’ valiant efforts were better rewarded during his next big scene, the prayer “Tu sul labbro de’ veggenti”. Here, accompanied by cello obbligato, was revealed a bass of great dark beauty and sonority. His following excerpts of note, the animated prediction which closes the opera’s third act (“Del futuro nel bujo discerno”) as well as the opera’s concluding ensemble preceeding Abigaille’s brief mad scene (“Immenso Jehovah”) confirmed the pattern set by the previous scenes. Mr. Gangestad’s voice was most impressive when allowed to spin out over the long arching lines of the adagio, and less at ease when negotiating dynamic passages of bravura singing demanded by Verdi’s treacherous score. These performances marked Mr. Gangestad’s first outing as Zaccaria, and though it will not be remembered as an unqualified success, there is much this young artist can build upon for future assumptions of the part.
Central to the opera is the figure of the Babylonian princess Abigaille, a treacherous soprano part with a reputation for ending the career of many an august singer. Unlike the remainder of the assoluta soprano parts, such as Bellini’s Norma, Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, and Cherubini’s Medea, the Verdian chapter of these heroines require a greater degree of thrust over the orchestra and a more pronounced use of chest resonance. In fact, those in the know were already coming up with a different term for this type of singer during Verdi’s time: Donna di Forza, Abigalle is an exciting yet dangerous role, written by a young master not yet conscientious of the vocal health of his leading ladies. The first Abigaille, Giuseppina Strepponi, famously succumbed to an early retirement shortly after debuting the part. The role requires vocal chords of steel, a thorough understanding of the bel canto style, supreme athleticism and a judicious singer to triumph in the part yet remain unscathed. As seen during her tremendously successful debut in the part in Minnesota two years ago, the role has found a near ideal exponent in American soprano Brenda Harris. Throughout the rigorous length of the part, she exhibited a voice which can be pressed to Wagnerian heft to express anger, hate and defiance, only to, in a flash, melt away to the most angst ridden pianissimo. Between here and there, she accomplished the most mercurial feats of bravura coloratura that have been conjured for a singer of her type. After a slightly tentative entrance (the sustained basement low B in “Prode guerrier” was well established, but it is hardly her prize feature), she quickly got in the business of expressing the plight of this sword wielding Spartan. Like her not so distant cousin, Odabella in Verdi’s later opera Attila, Harris’ Abigaille established herself through forceful melisma right upon her entrance through a ferocious attack on the descending fortissimo fireworks of “Il fulmine su voi sospeso e gia”, giving way to the trio “Io t’amava, il regno, il cuore”. Here, she allowed herself to vocally expose the love struck princess, switching gears from the baleful mixed chest to the supplicating tone of the cantabile “Ah! Se m’ami ancor potrei”. It was one of the many fine expressive details she bothered to underline in this evening full of superhuman challenges. And thus this would prove the benchmark of her achievement: She seemed unwilling to comfortably settle into a one-dimensional vocal impersonation of this tigress once the technical challenges had been thoroughly conquered. Through her singing, we heard the warrior princess, the dutiful daughter and triumphant conqueror, the spurned lover, the wronged child, the vengeful queen, and ultimately the repentant miser. The rest of the first act she generously relished with oodles of power rendered exciting by the accuracy and sheer size of her passagework. The “Viva Nabucco” was ear splitting, and her outburst within the concertato “Colei, che il solo mio ben contende”, with its violently disjunct negotiations from middle G up to high G back down to middle C ad nauseam was hair raising.
There were greater revelations during Ms. Harris’ massive scena which opened the second act. The reaction to the revealing letter was not one of anger, but that of a startled, wounded daughter who has been dealt yet another devastating blow. Lied to by everyone, Ms. Harris lashed out at the haters in a mercurial crescendo which culminated in the recitative’s piece de resistance, the epic two octave drop from the high soprano high C to its contralto twin. This was carried out full on and with pin point precision. A true belcantista, Ms. Harris was equally at home wallowing in the faultless legato of the Donizetti-like cavatina “Anchio dichiuso” as well as with the insurmountable obstacle course that was her show-stopping cabaletta “Salgo gia”, delivered in full voice with Handelian accuracy, complete with connected trills and oodles of Verdian slancio up to the high C. The replacement of the customary 20-minute intermission between the acts with a two minute pause made her feat the more admirable. These accomplishments notwithstanding, the third act revealed her finest work, easily bearing down upon her feeble father in the duet “Donna, chi sei?” The confrontation decides the future of the throne as well as the familial relationship between the principals, and looks forward towards Verdi’s later clash between Amneris and Rhadames thirty years later. An emboldened Abigaille easily beared down upon his father as Ms. Harris first feigned allegiance, then tricked her father into signing off her rival sister, and finally dismissing his protests via a massive scale topped by a huge high B, steadily held as Ms. Harris frantically tore the rather durable piece of parchment. During the cantabile, she exulted in her position, capping the melodic line with glorious, ample , but was temporarily (if unwillingly) moved by the father’s pleading during the duet’s finale “Deh perdona ad un padre che delira”. It was in this moment that Ms. Harris set up her final denouement as satisfyingly as one could, because the opera is clearly missing the scene where Abigaille’s palace is visited by Jehova’s witnesses. This notwithstanding, she saved her most beautiful tones for her final mad scene, the mystical yet dramatically suspect “su me morente esanime”, which was crowned by a breathtaking fil di voce on its climatic high A. More remarkable, her pantomime seemed inspired by Sofonisba’s death in Pastrone’s Cabiria, bringing to an end an impersonation so complete and inspired, it may rank unique in our midst today. One dares say that a search for a comparable achievement would take the inquirer back to the mid 1960’s.
The title role of the opera, the Babylonian king Nabucco, presents a very unique set of challenges for the leading baritone. Similar to the title role in Verdi’s later opera Attila, the part is quite lob sided, with the majority of the role’s heavy lifting taking place in the second part of the opera. Until then, Nabucco participates only in ensemble singing which closes both the first and second acts, and must somehow he heard over the overwhelming cacophony at a high tessitura. In the meantime, our baritone must relinquish the majority of the spotlight to the prima donna until the opera’s final act. This humiliation is enough to keep the deserving baritone hovering over the accept button for a couple of days and Opera Carolina audiences were happy that baritone Gordon Hawkins opted to accept the challenge. Introduced by a jolly march, our anti hero made his heralded entrance towards the end of the first act aided by a darkened stage and establishing imagery graciously provided by Director Bernard Uzan. The returning lights revealed a tall, statuesque artist with a domineering stage presence, like an ancient monument lit alive. The concertato which premiers his involvement: “Tremin gli’insani del mio furore” revealed an ample sized, bronzed colored baritone with an attractive luminosity. As the voice climbed to the segment’s climatic high E’s, an occasional unsteadiness was registered, but nothing to undermine the stately bearing of his declamation. The ensemble which capped the second act (S’appresan gl’istanti d’un’ira fatale” produced a similar authoritative effect. It was following the divine thunderbold that smites his reason that the voice abandoned its stately tone and attained a more malleable and expressive quality. Lines such as “Ah! Perche sul ciglio una lagrima spunto?” were delivered with an insecure fearful tone, the sound of a man who has never known weakness and suddenly feels his feet give under a massive trap of musical quicksand. The stage was set for real emotional development, which Mr. Hawkins deliciously explored during his exchange with Abigaille in the third act, the duet “Donna, chi sei?”. As in the case with Ms. Harris, Mr. Hawkins projected his passions primarily through musical means, with his stage business shadowing the effect created by his singing. This brand of old school opera is nowadays rarely experienced, so it was a veritable delight to hear two exponents of this near forgotten artform exchanging lines on the same stage. His initial retorts to the usurper were deceptively steady, and quickly emboldened by the trap laid before him by the clever Abigaille. His voice took on an ominous quality when it delivered the trump card of Abigaille’s true birthright. Upon realizing that this was all a ruse, the retort of “Oh di qual onta aggravasi” was inward at first and then pleading, giving way to the true admission of defeat during the duet’s final section “Deh perdona, deh perdona”. Here, Mr. Hawkins engaged in some true singing acting by reducing his voice to a barely audible messa voce, underlining Nabucco’s pathetic humiliation. As the curtain fell on the scene, his defeat was veritably complete. For this grand scena in the opera’s final act we reserve a dual review. During the opening night performance, Mr. Hawkins delivered his long cavatina “Dio di Giuda” in a full tone and managed a fine legato line which earned him a well deserved ovation. However, for the final presentation on October 26, he reverted to a sustained fil di voce heard earlier during the duet with Abigaille. This bold choice, certainly difficult to maintain for the duration of a full aria, may have confused some, but it better illustrated the character’s mystical religious transformation. While your friends at newoutpost better preferred the singer’s original rendition, we more than appreciate an artist who gambles for the sake of expression, and placed Mr. Hawkins’ interpretation of Verdi’s first eponymous baritone part ranked among one of his finest achievements.
Abigaille’s nicer sister Fenena was portrayed by mezzo-soprano Ola Rafalo, a singer whose raw instrument is sure to warrant her a starry career, at times sounding like a budding baby Cossotto. Though her role is short, it contains some of the most graciously written passages to be found in the score, through which her dark, sultry sound rolled out through the auditorium with remarkable clarity. It handsomely filled the auditorium in the last act’s prayer “Oh dischiuso e il firmamento”. She is young, beautiful, thin and HD transmission ready, and she is sure to be offered more complex assignments (such as Amneris) in the near future. She would be wise to be heard in those at a much later time. Her production is generous but open, and while this is a sure way to delights the public it may potentially tire the artist. With further mastery of method and greater experience, she is sure to find herself gracing the world’s great stages, and allow those present at these performances to claim to have seen her in the small but important role of Fenena before she became a huge star.
Her tenor lover, Ismaele, was played by Brian Arreola, a dashing young singer who made much of his short yet demanding role. During the opera’s introductory trio (Io t’amava,) he ardently matched the blazing voices of his colleagues with a robust, masculine approach. The role’s most demanding excerpt happens in the second act, with Ismale fending off the Levite discontent by way of repeated declamation of exposed fortissimo high Fs. Though Mr. Arreola betrayed the occasional strain of this punishing ascend, he managed to complete his task elegantly and unscathed while always remaining on pitch. Along with Ms. Rafalo, he cut a striking and sympathetic figure onstage.
The minor roles were handsomely filled. Ms. Harris’ Abigaille was occasionally assisted in the soprano line by the Anna of Kelly Hutchinson. A trouper of a singer, Ms. Hutchinson dutifully partook in her share of the heavy lifting, especially in the massive ensemble scenes where there is little glory to enjoy. Her most gracious music was heard in the final quartet “Immenso Jehovah”. While her top was not exceptional in terms of glamour, but it was more than serviceable and rang true. When blended with the Fenena of Ola Rafalo, it created that mythical third voice which in more than all of the score represented the musical tinta of the later, greater Verdi. For the male comprimarios, high marks were reserved for baritone Kenneth Overton, who was luxuriously cast as a sturdy voiced High Priest. Tenor Martin Schreiner was a serviceable Abdallo.
Opera Carolina follows Nabucco with performances of Puccini’s Turandot this coming January. For more information on this and the rest of the Opera Carolina 2014-15 season, please visit the company’s website at www.operacarolina.org