N.Y. City Opera tackles the work that put Verdi on the map

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"Nabuco" put Verdi on the operatic map. His third opera, which has just been produced by the New York City Opera, with Grace Bumbry in the taxing role of Abigaille, marked Verdi's return to an art form he vowed to eschew after the fiasco of his second opera, "Un giorno di regno."

How Verdi began writing "Nabucco" is somewhat vague. He claims he was given the Solera libretto, took it home, and threw it to the floor -- and the booklet fell open to the words of the celebrated chorus "Va pensiero."

The rest, in Verdi's telling, was history. However it really happened, "Nabucco" arrived at the peak of the fervor to expel the Austrians from Italy. The opening-night furor that greeted "Va pensiero" is one of the legendary demonstrations in the history of music. Verdi was not only deemed an instant hero but an important voice in the growing nationalism that was sweeping the land under the name Risorgimento.

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That chorus is the outpouring of the captive Hebrews at their lowest point -- a cry for freedom from oppression: No wonder the occupied Italians took it as their new national anthem.

"Nabucco" is based on the biblical tale of King Nebuchadnezzar. He tries to make himself a god, is struck insane by a livid Jehovah, the converts to Judaism , in the end joining the Hebrews in praise of Jehovah. The love interest is supplied by his daughter Fenena and the young Hebrew Ismaele. The drama, apart from the conflict between Nabucco and Zaccaria, the Hebrew high priest, focuses on Nabucco's other daughter, Abigaille, the Amazonian woman born of a slave.

She is power mad, would kill her sister, does arrest her father, achieves power, and in the end poisons herself, begging forgiveness of all as she breathes her operatic last. This is not the Verdi of "Otello" or even "Luisa Miller," and Otto Nicolai (best known for his "Merry Wives of Windsor"), who turned down the libretto, called Verdi's opera "absolutely dreadful," yet it remains the only early Verdi work to be staged with any sort of frequency.

"Nabucco" has its share of preposterous moments, its share of thrilling music , and some theatrical gestures institutionalized in a later era by Cecil B. De Mille. It is no mean feat to stage the opera well, and the work has daunted even the best-suited opera houses.

The title role is a solid one; Zaccaria is the ample forerunner of the great Verdi basso parts of the future. Abigaille is unique: He was never to write another role quite so terribly taxing for even the most gifted singer -- demanding the strength of a mezzo, the blazing top of a dramatic soprano, and the agility of a dramatic coloratura.

There is only a smallish tenor role and an equally smallish mezzo role, but the chorus is given several splendid scenes to show off in. There are many fine tunes and rousing scenes throughout. In short, "Nabucco" is an old-fashioned operatic entertainment, viscerally rather than intellectually appealing.

One frankly wonders why this company tackled this difficult opera in the first place. It surely does not allow this company to shine the way "Atilla" did last season. The distinguished veteran designer Nicola Benois's sets, borrowed from the Greater Miami Opera Association, feature a "V" of steps, with various pillars and doors decorating the upper platform at suitable times. It all looked rather cramped on the City Opera stage.

More disquieting were the Benois costumes -- generally unflattering to everyone on stage and, more suprisingly, sometimes caricaturish.How unfortunate that such a questionable production is only Benois's second in New York (the other being Rossini's "Siege of Corinth," Beverly Sills' Met debut). A man of his excellence deserves far more, and far better.

Ghita Hager's direction never solved the problem of those steps, and was suffused with primitive ideas: The chorus ran in and out in waves; the singers stood and flapped their arms. There was just enough lassitude to the big dramatic buildups to reduce the grand theatrical gestures -- particularly the fall of the statue of Baal -- to nothing more than triteness and risibility. It set opera staging back at least 75 years. At her curtain call, Miss Hager was roundly booed.

Miss Bumbry, who seems to have been the raison d'etre of the production, was not in her best voice opening night. She had real troubles early on. Later she settled into moments of true characterization, as well as better singing, and offered clear indications of what she will be like when in better form. Even if her acting has become somewhat detached from dramatic reality, when it all comes together she is a blazing presence -- and quite the best singer on the City's stage in several years.

John Broecheler was seriously miscast in the title role. His gentle lyric baritone was consistently pushed out of all shape and quality to accommodate this heroic role, except in his tender prayer scene, where his true value as a singing artist was in evidence.

Justino Diaz garnered the largest ovation of the evening as Zaccaria, though his stentorian singing was often rough, and devoid of characterization.As for the always beautiful Joanna Simon, the role of Fenena fit her personality well and she sang expressively.

The City Opera chorus was shown off to fine advantage. Imre Pallo was his usual lively, involved, musicianly self in the pit. In truth, he held this production together almost singlehandedly.

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