Opera Carolina’s new production of “Nabucco,” Verdi’s first big hit, was designed and built here in North Carolina, but it would grace the stage almost anywhere.

The conducting, the orchestra in the pit, the chorus on stage, the principal singers, the set design, and the brilliant lighting all worked together to form a whole well worth recommending. This is all the more remarkable because “Nabucco” is a difficult work to stage.

The pride of place among the singers belongs to Brenda Harris for her portrayal of Nabucco’s vengeful half-daughter Abigaille, a role whose numerous high notes and relentlessly acrobatic writing has caused it to be described as a pig of a part, one of the most taxing in opera. It is said to ruin voices.

Maria Callas sang Abigaille only once; Joan Sutherland flatly refused to ever do it.

Harris did not make Abigaille seem effortless – that would be impossible – but she approached the part with the boldness of a lion tamer, and made it her own.

“Nabucco” tells the story of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the Hebrew temple, derived from the Bible’s books of Jeremiah, Daniel and Kings.

In the title role as Nabucco (Italian for Nebuchadnezzar), Gordon Hawkins was on opening night at first a little too stolid to be taken for the blood-thirsty tyrant his part requires. He came into his own, however, in the later acts as Nabucco underwent madness and regret. Andrew Gangestad’s Zaccaria was initially somewhat wooly in tone, but warmed to his part as the evening transpired.

The Fenena of Ola Rafalo was sung with genuine lyricism. Brian Arreola made much of his relatively brief role as the love interest, Ismaele. The Anna of Kelly Hutchinson, Kenneth Overton as the High Priest of Baal, and Martin Schreiner as Abdallo, each added something memorable to the production.

There are few operas as dominated by the chorus. It is onstage through three quarters of the opera, seizing on fugitive hope in the midst of despair, expressing barbarous fury, or lamenting the loss of a homeland. The Opera Carolina Chorus sang passionately, but also musically, shaping the phrases and maintaining good diction despite the demands of Verdi’s writing.

The performance of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Opera Carolina director James Meena was as fine. In the wrong hands, Verdi’s orchestration can sound downright brassy, but this performance emphasized Verdi’s strengths and minimized his youthful weaknesses.

The playing was lyrical but taut, the balances between orchestra and chorus kept firmly in control without failing to linger on the beauties of the score.

“Nabucco” (composed in 1841) is the earliest opera of Verdi’s to remain in the repertory. Some of the joy of listening to it is beholding a genius discovering himself, and sensing the masterpieces that lie before him. In this, it is like Shakespeare’s Richard the Third or Mozart’s Idomeneo. The prominence of the chorus throughout “Nabucco” constantly threatens to transform it from an opera into a dramatic oratorio. Verdi has not yet learned how to have his characters show their intentions rather than explain them.

This is where the lighting design of Michael Baumgarten made a dramatic difference in a work which might seem static otherwise. Throughout this production film projections almost immersed the stage space. At one point the entire stage and chorus seemed engulfed in living flame.

It was elegant and theatrically apt through most of the performance. The one misfire was during the famous chorus, “Va Pensiero,” which tried to encapsulate the tragic history of the Jewish diaspora in a slideshow. This seemed to be overkill in a work in which the young Verdi still labored under the influence of Rossini’s fizzling but somewhat shallow William Tell.

By Phillip Larrimore, The Charlotte Observer

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