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While it isn't accorded the same reverence in the Verdi canon as Otello or Don Carlos, the Italian master's Nabucco has gotten more play in the new millennium at Opera Carolina than either of those more mature works. We had a wonderful Nabucco at Belk Theater as recently as 2003 with Mark Delavan in the title role and Rebecca Copley as Abigaille, the Babylonian king's recalcitrant adopted daughter. No other opera that has waited until the company's 50th anniversary for its Charlotte debut has ever been reprised before. Otello was given its second Opera Carolina production in 2009-10 after a 31-year hiatus, and among the opera world's great Dons – Giovanni, Pasquale, and Carlos – only Verdi's remains an absentee in the company's 66-year history. Yet the return of Nabucco augurs well for Carolina's 2014-15 season. The remainder of the slate, Turandot and Lucia di Lammermoor, after respective intervals of six and eleven years, are reliable indicators that these works are personal favorites of Opera Carolina general director and principal conductor James Meena.
Cynics might argue that these operas have emerged as audience favorites and Opera Carolina is producing them to cash in. Neither of those arguments could be dismissed as Meena and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra launched into the polymorphic overture, not merely stitching together its varied vignettes but obviously relishing its shifting moods and caprices. The Tetragrammaton, emblazoned in its original Hebrew lettering on the scrim before it rose to reveal the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, signaled that the production design (by Michael Baumgarten and Bernard Uzan) would be highly conceptual and religious. While the coloring of the Temple's massive stones might rekindle memories of the Wailing Wall, the set design looks like a Frank Lloyd Wright makeover of the ancient wonder. Counterbalancing this slickly machined modernity are the more authentic costume designs for the elders, women, and soldiers of Judea as well as those for the Babylonian invaders. Though the walls converge somewhat diagonally from the downstage wings, plenty of room remains for a projection screen to dominate the upstage. Here we initially see the Star of David engraved in more roughly hewn stone.
Stage director Uzan has more ambitious aims for the screen as we proceed. When Nabucco (or Nebuchadnezzar) entered in triumph, the Star was replaced with the conqueror's graven profile, and when we adjourned to the Jews' exile in Assyria, the projections were more audacious. On the banks of the Euphrates, where the chorus sings the famed "Va, pensiero" anthem, projections of the blue waters overflowed the screen onto the surrounding scenery and the singers themselves. These gave way to a cavalcade of woeful Judaic images that terminated in photos of Nazi concentration camps and victims of the Holocaust. Ultimately, when Nabucco experienced his religious epiphany and was restored to sanity and his throne, the imagery grew more religious and affirmative. A scroll of the Torah was spread across the screen, opened to the "Hear, O Israel" passage in Deuteronomy that my rabbi is fond of calling the watchword of our faith. When the Jews were saved, images of the Holocaust victims were partly replaced by the blue and white colors of the Israeli flag, a fitting affirmation of nationhood and the end of the Hebrews' exile.
At times, I was somewhat conflicted on the question of whether all this anachronistic imagery and technology were too much of an artistic reach. Yet I was genuinely moved when, in the midst of the High Priest Zaccaria's valedictory affirmation, all the elaborate imagery dissolved and the blazing Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton reappeared, brighter than they were at the outset. Overall, I would have been more pleased if the production design had been as attentive to the drama as Meena and the CSO were to Verdi's score. Judea and Assyria – whether we were inside the Holy Temple, Nabucco's throne room, the hanging gardens of Babylon, or the dungeon where the mad king was imprisoned – looked very much the same all evening long. Uzan's static staging only compounded the disorientations of the mostly immobile scenery, often spreading the key performers before us as if they were giving us a concert reduction of the opera instead of the real thing. The inattention to detail was most acute in the Act I standoff, when Nabucco is poised to raze the Temple but Zaccaria is holding the king's true daughter Fenena in captivity, threatening to kill her. Neither the dramatic tension of this confrontation nor the betrayal that resolved it seemed to be of any interest to Uzan or his talented cast. Not surprisingly, a noticeable chunk of the audience also lost interest and departed at intermission.
By giving up, these unfortunate few missed out on the sanctified rendition of the "Va, pensiero" and the finest rewards of Opera Carolina's daring production concept. They also missed out on nearly half of the fine singing, beginning with the Opera Carolina Chorus, wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) at least six centuries before their time. Although insufficiently directed to play their roles, the soloists are well-cast and very fine. In his regal maroon-and-gold costume, baritone Gordon Hawkins looked amazingly like the projection of Nabucco behind him, and there was a mad gleam in his eye even before his hubris called down the wrath of God and the onset of insanity. The fullest range of Hawkins' artistry was best experienced when the voice mellowed after intermission, first pleading to Abigaille for the life of Fenena and then in his religious "Dio di Giuda" penitence. Soprano Brenda Harris seemed incapable of such nuances and modulations at first, bringing a Brünnhilde-strength forcefulness to her early scenes as Abigaille. But in the penitential orgy of Act IV, Harris showed a tender side that was no less transformative.
With the added religious emphasis of Opera Carolina's production, Zaccaria wrested much of our attention from the romantic protagonists that librettist Temistocle Solera injected into this biblical tale. A stocky and stolid presence, bass-baritone Andrew Gangestad brought a nice gravity to the High Priest's role, softening his stern delivery only slightly by the waters of Babylon and in his last interactions with the Babylonians. You need to follow the supertitles closely – or read the helpful synopsis in the program – to grasp that Ismael is the Judean king's nephew, for tenor Brian Arreola's presence didn't suggest such exalted status any more than his costume did. When he got his chances to sing, rebuffing Abigaille's advances and in the turbulent trio leading up to his betrayal of Jerusalem – for love! – Arreola proved worthy of the sisters' adoration. As a demure royal captive, mezzo-soprano Ola Rafalo gave Fenena a modicum of spunk in the early tumult. Making up for becoming the newfound cause of the destruction of Solomon's Temple, Fenena was seen converting to Judaism early in Act II, but it wasn't until deep into Act IV that I discovered the full sweetness of Rafalo's voice in her Charlotte debut, singing the "Oh, dischiuso è il firmamento" aria preparing for her martyrdom. Coaxing a little more poignancy from this moment, Uzan and Baumgarten contrive to have Fenena wear a yellow Star of David on her left breast, the same notorious patch the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Third Reich. Unfortunately, the shape and significance of the patch didn't reach Row T until I trained my binoculars upon it. Yes, there are definitely elements of this audacious production that could be tweaked, but its power and fervid spirit are unmistakable.
Performances continue through October 26. For details, see the sidebar.