The following review is based on the November 2nd performance and contains some plot spoilers.
Composed by celebrated Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi in 1841, and written by librettist Temistocle Solera, who based it on the play by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis Cornu, LA Opera’s “Nabucco” (playing through November 19th) is a riveting four-act Italian opera that stirs its viewers and brings them together in a call for something greater than themselves. The combination of inspired biblical history (i.e., Jeremiah and Daniel) and scriptures, amid a fictional dramatic narrative, grounds the message of how even the wicked and spiteful can be humbled by the hope and forgiveness of repentance.
Short for “Nabucodonosor,” “Nabucco” refers to the conquering king of Assyria, and warrior of Babylon (played by Plácido Domingo), who lays siege to the Temple of Solomon, subjugating the Israelites and their spiritual leader, Zaccaria (Morris Robinson). However, a triangle of love/jealousy between the king of Jerusalem’s nephew and military leader, Ismaele (Mario Chang), as well as his oppressor’s (Nabucco) daughters: Fenena (Nancy Fabiola Herrera), whom he desires, and Abigaille (Liudmyla Monastyrska) whom he rejects, activates the scorn of the latter, fomenting an unpredictably contentious unrest. In turn, Abigaille, who later discovers she is slave-born and adopted, attempts to exact revenge from her “imagined father,” Nabucco, as power swells, allegiances realign, and individuals gird or render themselves helpless in the face of it. It is an, overall, blistering account that is given an even greater agency due to parallels to Verdi’s personal tragedy of losing his children, and historical similarities to his Italian homeland which was, at the time, occupied by Austrians in the north.
Director Thaddeus Strassberger aligns it as closely as he can with the original intent of the production, which debuted in 1842 at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, so much so that “Nabucco” is a show within a show. The Austrian aristocracy observes the proceedings, on what is supposed to be a stage in Italy, unfold from their balcony. It is a nod to Verdi and his inspirations, as this life-imitates-art equivalent is referenced throughout, and is made to appear gloriously vivid by the ingenious costume designs of Mattie Ullrich. Her round, Victorian-era dresses of the noble female attendees are a sight to behold, as are her complex adornments worn by the Assyrians and Hebrews. Strassberger, who is also the scenery designer, has collaborated with lighting designer Mark McCullough to cultivate an immersive ambiance with depth, chromatic colors, an incredible grandeur, and even special effects to frame and substantiate the plot and its characters therein.
Conductor James Conlon has paid the ultimate respect to Verdi’s versatility and exquisite music. The score has just as much personality as the performers’ portrayals, which is indubitably understood by Conlon, who is successful in yielding a wonderful clarity from his orchestra and singers. The notes, which symbolize interconnected themes, can be sweet one moment, thoughtful the next, perhaps even ambiguous, before resolving themselves with a definitive statement that punctuates with fervor. The music is emblematic of collective pride in response to outside persecution – a motif that is repeatedly reminded of by the purposeful chorus. Led by Conlon, they are impelled by a fortified courage with which they sing the pieces, none of which are more transcendent than the unifying “Va, Pensiero,” wherein the Hebrews yearn to reclaim and “re-awaken fond memories” of their country.
Plácido Domingo gives a fantastic performance as Nabucco, for man of 76 or any other age. Like “Macbeth” last fall, Domingo, formerly of The Three Tenors, excels as a baritone, spryly moving around the stage with a charismatic panache that is enthralling to witness. Domingo has a knack, not to mention the acting prowess, for giving his lyrics the necessary subtext they need, informed by the mood that he wants to evoke from the audience. For instance, when he appears in Act I as the king of Assyria, demanding that his soldiers show the Israelites no mercy, we absolutely believe him. The same can be said for his robustly intoned rendition of “S’appressan gl’istanti,” when Nabucco presumptuously proclaims himself to not only be king, but god.
Yet, Domingo, whose Nabucco is at once amoral and mad, somehow earns our sympathy and respect, when we see his character vulnerable and doleful. When we see him dodderingly powerless on his knees, asking himself “Why these tears of grief?”, we want to lend a helping hand to a ruler who has been divested of his majesty, cast off to prison by his adopted daughter. When he realizes he is in danger of losing his biological one (Fenena) due to royal decree by Abigaille, our parental instincts ally us with Nabucco. This is a credit to Domingo’s presence and talent for utilizing his body language, vocal inflection, and facial expressions to convey the calamity of it all. Of course, his voice is as lucid and pleasant as ever, underscored by an emotionally piquant resonance (as in “Dio di Giuda!”, when Nabucco devotedly pleads for the Hebrews’ forgiveness), and reinforced by his mastery of the material.
Domingo is joined by the exceptional Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille, a newcomer to LA Opera, but certainly not to opera or the role, which she has performed for five other companies. Nonetheless, the soprano, who is an inexhaustible operatic machine, nearly steals the show by portraying an impressive ruthlessness fueled by envy and long-forgotten love. That said, under her tough skin, there’s a tangible humanity to Abigaille, which makes Monastyrska’s performance all the more engrossing, as she reveals her motivation for her despotic tendencies. This is noted in Act I when Monastyrska sings “lo t’amavo,” as her persona offers a reprieve in exchange for Ismaele’s love, but especially during the heart-rendingly mellifluous “Anch’io dischiuso,” when she whimsically wonders if she could “recapture the joys of love.” This is in stark contrast to Monastyrska’s precisely sung vocal daggers that resonate intimidatingly, with a furious strength, and exert a preternatural force. It is a tour-de-force showing by Monastyrska, who grittily rises to the expectations of her well-written character.
Morris Robinson, who was last seen on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage as the funny Osmin in “The Abduction from the Seraglio,”is the poignantly solemn and headstrong priest of the Hebrews, Zaccaria. When Robinson, a prize-winning bass, bellows an array of notes with his thunderously magnificent voice, people listen without fail to the Atlanta-raised titan, who once had his eyes set on NFL stardom. During his aria “Sperate, o figli,” when his character steadfastly asks his people to “banish all fear” and trust in Jehovah as they are rushed by the Assyrians, we are inspired by the courage he emotes in relation to the precarious unknown. We are similarly filled with awe when, as Zaccaria, Morris is kneeling with a white shroud over his shoulders in Act II, somberly appealing to his unending faith during “Tu sul labbro.” Robinson’s soft but sturdy singing about “the signs and wonders” that God has bestowed upon his Zaccaria is touching to watch.
Nancy Fabiola Herrera and Mario Chang, who share many of their scenes together, are the forbidden lovers Fenena and Ismaele. They are quite impactful in their supporting roles, giving their parts a great credibility that raises the stakes of the fallout of their characters’ union. Chang’s tenor voice is as expressive as ever, and Herrera’s mezzo-soprano talents are on full display as well, specifically when her notes fly like doves, as she angelically performs the heartbreaking solo, “Oh, dischiuso è il firmamento,” in Act IV. Her Fenena peacefully surrenders herself to death at the hands of the Assyrians, as Domingo’s Nabucco inconsolably looks on.
Also joined by Gabriel Vamvulescu as the crippled but still imposing High Priest of Baal, Liv Redpath as Anna, and Joshua Wheeker as Abdallo, LA Opera’s revival of Verdi’s “Nabucco” is a musically nourishing epic bolstered by a visual sumptuousness that is grounded in not only history, but the pride of a people. It is a pride founded upon honor and humility, which, together, form the purest basis for resilience, forgiveness, and change.
Four more showings of “Nabucco” remain: Sunday, November 5th at 2 pm; Wednesday, November 8th at 7:30 pm; Saturday, November 11th at 7:30 pm; and Sunday, November 19th at 2 pm.
For more information about “Nabucco,” and to purchase tickets, please visit laopera.org