In a year with “Noah” in movie theaters, to be followed in December by the story of Moses in “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” it comes as no surprise that another Old Testament figure – Nebuchadnezzar – shows up on the stage.

Opera Carolina opens its 2014-15 season with Verdi’s “Nabucco” (Italian for Nebuchadnezzar) on Oct. 18, 23 and 26 at Belk Theater. While the movies attract audience members for the portrayal of supernatural cataclysmic events against severe cruelty and violence, the powerful force seen in “Nabucco” is contrition.

“Nabucco” tells the story of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the Hebrew temple, derived from the event as told in the Bible’s books of Jeremiah, Daniel and Kings, with the dramatic addition of some romance, treason and power struggle. After the Temple of Solomon is destroyed at Nabucco’s hand, the king announces that he is not only a ruler, but god, and is immediately struck down for this blasphemy.

A a sort of madness sets in and his vengeful half-daughter Abigaille is crowned ruler and orders the execution of the Israelites, including her half-sister Fenena, who has been an ally to the Hebrew people despite being Nabucco’s daughter. Nabucco, looking on from imprisonment as his daughter marches to her death, prays to the Hebrew god, asking for forgiveness and pledging repentance and his own conversion. His sanity returns and he is able to stop the genocide. The opera ends with Israelites and Babylonians praising God together.

Opera Carolina director and conductor James Meena considers contrition to be the message and underlying theme of “Nabucco,” and one that is “powerfully relevant in modern times. The universal issues that divide and unite people are front-page news today – from extremist views that fuel divisiveness in our political environment at home to the enduring conflict in the Middle East. It’s an opera that blends a robust musical score and suspenseful drama with contemporary parallels.”

Metropolitan Opera baritone Gordon Hawkins, who sang the title role in Opera Carolina’s 2006 production of “Rigoletto,” will sing the role of Nabucco for the first time. Though the crown may weigh heavy on his character’s head, Hawkins says the responsibility of communicating a lesson in morality feels great.

“I have a chance to repent,” Hawkins said. “I have a chance to actually redeem some of the sins and atrocities I’ve committed. That’s a wonderful color to show – to actually admit you’ve made a mistake, make atonement, and make the change.”

Joining Hawkins are soprano Brenda Harris, making her Opera Carolina debut as Abigaille, and bass Andrew Gangstad as Zaccaria, High Priest of the Jews.

This new production, directed by Bernard Uzan, was co-produced with and performed at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore in May. Like many of Opera Carolina’s creations, digital projections take the place of painted backdrops and bulky sets in “Nabucco,” which allows significantly faster scene changes and therefore shorter operas, which, Meena says, is something the audience demographic ages 25-40 said was important to them. Verdi wrote “Nabucco” with four acts, but Opera Carolina combines them into two, clocking in at 2 hours, 40 minutes including a 25-minute intermission, all without cutting a note.

In the well-known chorus “Va, pensiero,” the enslaved Hebrews rest from their labor and remember their native land with lyrics “Oh my country, so beautiful and lost! Oh remembrance, so dear and so fatal!” and “Mindful of the fate of Jerusalem, give forth a sound of crude lamentation, or may the Lord inspire you a harmony of voices which may instill virtue to suffering.”

During this portion, digital projections feature a “slideshow of Jewish oppression,” said Michael Baumgarten, Opera Carolina’s production and lighting director. Images portraying Jewish hardship from the sixth century BCE through the holocaust will be seen, including paintings by Chagall, Goya and Turner as well as photographs of emaciated prisoners in concentration camps.

“We debated this, wondering if it was too over the top,” Meena said. “I’m sure there will be a few raised eyebrows, but ultimately, we like to challenge perceptions and like to make our audience think.”

By: Leah Harrison, The Charlotte Observer
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