Sunday, 29 July 2018 15:22

Arts Capsule: Tower of power

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L-R: Robert Garner as Nabucco, Melody Wilson as Fenena, Marsha Thompson as Abigaille L-R: Robert Garner as Nabucco, Melody Wilson as Fenena, Marsha Thompson as Abigaille Photo by John Lamb

Verdi's 1842 Biblical melodrama "Nabucco" ("Nebuchadnezzar") isn't the composer's biggest hit, but it was his first, sealing his reputation as a major new force in Italian opera. Union Avenue Opera's fast-paced and splendidly sung production makes an exceptionally good case for it.

"Nabucco" is pretty red-blooded stuff. Loosely based on Old Testament texts, it's the story of Nebuchadnezzar's conquest and exiling of the Jews and his subsequent conversion to Judaism following a curse of madness from Jehovah when he arrogantly proclaims himself a god. Librettist Temistocle Solera took considerable liberties with both the OT and history, though, by adding a romantic triangle involving Fenena (Nabucco's youngest daughter), Abigaille (his eldest daughter), and Ismaele (a Jewish soldier), as well as a backstabbing power struggle between Abigaille and Nabucco. The story delivers passion, violence, and borderline-absurd rapid plot reversals in quantity, all accompanied by powerful music that illuminates character even as it dazzles.

Union Avenue's cast certainly squeezes every ounce of drama out of this material. As the Jewish high priest Zaccaria, bass Zachary James is a powerful stage presence with a big, rolling basso that easily reaches to the back of the house. Baritone Robert Garner delivers Nabucco's anger and anguish brilliantly.

Marsha Thompson's wide-ranging soprano turns Abigaille into a monstrous force of nature while mezzo Melody Wilson, as Fenena, once again demonstrates the combination of vocal power and theatrical smarts that made her so impressive in previous roles with Union Avenue and Opera Theatre. Tenor Jesse Donner has somewhat less to work with, dramatically speaking, in the role of Ismaele, but he delivers the character's passion with real conviction in a fine, ringing voice.

And let us not neglect the chorus, one of the most consistently strong aspects of Union Avenue productions, in my experience. Verdi assigns the chorus an important narrative role that has them on stage for much of the opera's length, switching between displaced Jews and arrogant Babylonians. They get some of the opera's most memorable music, including the famous "Va pensiero" of Act III in which the exiled Jews long for their native land. In this production they begin singing from the house, finally arriving on stage for its hushed, moving conclusion.

The chorus part in "Nabucco" is, in short, physically taxing, with frequent costume changes and music that sometimes pushes singers to the limits of their tessiture. The Union Avenue singers are splendid throughout the opera, delivering a powerful, unified sound while still making each member of the ensemble a fully realized character.

Conductor Stephen Hargreaves leads the Union Avenue orchestra in a rousing and vital performance of the score, complete with a dramatic reading of the overture that features an electrifying coda. In his program notes for Lyric Opera of Chicago's "Nabucco" two years ago, conductor Carol Rizzi observed that "a conductor's greatest challenge in 'Nabucco' is creating a unity, rather than a stop-and-start idea of the opera; certain episodes don't flow easily into one another." Mr. Hargreaves and his players certainly create that unity, assisted by stage director Mark Freiman's brisk pacing.

Patrick Huber's massive set has enough levels to make for interesting stage pictures and allows the cast to do something other than just face downstage and sing. Teresa Doggett's costumes neatly contrast the humble, earth tone Jews with the colorful and gaudy Babylonians. Patrick Huber's lighting is dramatic, but it sometimes left singers in partial darkness on opening night.

Union Avenue's "Nabucco" is, in short, a certified rouser. And given that local performances of the opera are rare (there has not been one in my lifetime, as far as I know), any opera lover should head over to the Union Avenue Christian Church to see one of the two remaining performances on Friday and Saturday, August 3 and 4. Visit the Union Avenue web site for tickets.