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Review: Pittsburgh Opera's 'Nabucco' is powerful, imaginative vision of Verdi classic

| Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, 12:03 p.m.
Babylonian ruler Nabucco (Mark Delavan) orders the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, to the horror of the Israelites, in Pittsburgh Opera's production of 'Nabucco.'
David Bachman Photography.com
Babylonian ruler Nabucco (Mark Delavan) orders the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, to the horror of the Israelites, in Pittsburgh Opera's production of 'Nabucco.'
The Israelites mourn for their homeland on the banks of the Euphrates River in the famous chorus 'Va, pensiero' in Pittsburgh Opera's production of 'Nabucco.'
David Bachman Photography.com
The Israelites mourn for their homeland on the banks of the Euphrates River in the famous chorus 'Va, pensiero' in Pittsburgh Opera's production of 'Nabucco.'

An exceptionally impressive production of Giuseppe Verdi's “Nabucco” opened Pittsburgh Opera's season at the Benedum Center on Oct. 10, the 202nd anniversary of the composer's birth.

Verdi was 28 when he completed “Nabucco,” his third opera and his first real triumph. It was written in the “bel canto” era, exemplified by the operas of Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti, but, in some ways, Verdi already surpassed those masters.

The libretto by Temistockle Solera provided Verdi with the dramatic scope and spectacle to make a big statement. It is the story of the conquest of the ancient Hebrews by the Babylonian king Nabucco, with a love triangle, betrayal, madness and repentance. When Verdi wrote the opera, he was in acute grief over the deaths of his two children and his wife, and poured exceptional intensity into his work.

Pittsburgh Opera's production of “Nabucco” is imaginative and powerful. Stage director Bernard Uzan also designed the sets with lighting designer Michael Baumgarten. The images projected on the backdrop and the blank stone faces of the set at first show old Hebrew scrolls, then a profile sculpture of Nabucco.

The most famous part of the opera is “Va, pensiero,” the chorus of Hebrew slaves yearning to return home from captivity. It was beautifully paced by conductor Antony Walker and particularly well sung by Pittsburgh Opera Chorus.

“Va, pensiero” became the hymn of Italian unification in the 19th century, but Uzan's videos emphasize the Hebrew basis of this story. The presentation of “Va, pensiero” is the most intense example. The images projected are of the suffering of the Jewish people, at first evoking the biblical era and then moving forward during the centuries of Diaspora up to the Holocaust.

Uzan handles the chorus extremely well throughout the opera. In “Va, pensiero,” he has two children stand up during the singing, followed by adults in a way that mirrors the music's crescendo.

Mark Delavan's portrayal of Nabucco reached its high point at the start of Act 4 when he spun out beautiful and deeply felt musical lines embracing the God of the Hebrews. It was the most successful part of his “bel canto” approach. He sang with requisite force in Act 2, when Nabucco's rampant egotism leads him to declare himself no longer merely a king but a god. The video projection behind his being struck mad by lighting bolts from heaven is perfect.

Soprano Csilla Boross cut a compelling figure as Nabucco's daughter Abigaille and provided most of the evening's vocal fireworks. She sang strongly, and if she was sometimes over the top, her visceral impact was thrilling. Boross filled out other dimensions of her character, complementing her vengeful bitterness with sympathetic singing of her desire for love.

Laurel Semerdjian was excellent as Fenena, Nabucco's other daughter, who, like Abigaille, is in love with the Hebrew prince Ismaele. As a result, the first-act trio between the two women and Ismaele was uncommonly well balanced.

Oren Gradus as the Hebrew high priest Zaccaria was vocally underpowered in the opening scene, but later added weighty but finely shaped singing to his commanding stage presence.

Smaller roles were well handled by Adelaide Boedecker, Matthew Scollin and Adam Bonanni.

Conductor Walker provided a brilliant interpretation, equally sympathetic to music's “bel canto” style and the bigger vision of the young Verdi. Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra was at the top of its game, playing with panache and refinement. Celli and trombones rose to occasion for their prominent parts, while the solo trumpet playing had just the right personality and color.

Pittsburgh Opera last presented “Nabucco” in 1973, mainly because there are many later and greater Verdi operas. But knowing “Nabucco” is essential to understanding Verdi's creative path and rewarding in its own right. Pittsburgh Opera's production is a compelling experience no opera lover will want to miss.

Pittsburgh Opera's “Nabucco” will repeat at 7 p.m. Oct. 13, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16 and 2 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $12 to $157. Details: 412-456-6666 or pittsburghopera.org.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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