Nabucco is not easy to stage for any company, and conceivably even harder for a regional company, given that it requires no fewer than five gifted principal singers (with one of the roles particularly difficult – Abigaille) and three comprimarios, as well as large choral forces. Knowing Opera Carolina very well, I wasn't worried about its ability to pull it off, and I must say that my expectation wasn't disappointed. This production while not perfect (well, nothing is; we'll get to the few flaws in a moment) had some rather stratospheric high points, including the most interesting and powerful "Va pensiero" scene I've ever seen – seriously! And this is saying a lot because I'm particular fond of this chorus and I'm always looking for different versions, given its historical importance in Italy, the land of my ancestors and of which I'm also a citizen. "Va pensiero" almost became the Italian National Anthem after the Risorgimento (the Italian unification), and another attempt in this sense was made as recently as 2009.
Opera Carolina's take on it was so striking that I won't comment on it in the proper order, but will describe it right now. First of all, virtually all versions I've seen have the singers in static positions (usually sitting) throughout the piece, with sad faces. This production's "Va pensiero" scene starts with a beautiful digital projection of images of water (the river Euphrates) that encompass the entire scene including the chorus members, who acquire a flickering quality from the water that matches the staccato in the melody. Then, the projection evolves in a historical timeline from the episode depicted in the opera itself, all the way to the Holocaust, including shocking real images of prisoners in concentration camps. Meanwhile, rather than remaining sitting, the chorus singers start to stand up little by little as the piece continues until they are all standing and moving, which greatly enhances the symbolism of the piece, evoking the rise of the Jewish people. The effect was goose-bumping and so emotional that my eyes filled with tears. This, not to forget that the chorus did a sublime job, and even better did the Charlotte Symphony under Maestro Meena. The scene was a triumph, and one of the best moments I've experienced in my years as an opera lover. I had good orchestra seats, and listening to this great chorus up close was an unforgettable experience. Surprisingly, applause for the chorus wasn't the strongest that I heard tonight. I wonder how the public related to the shocking Holocaust scenes. Maybe some patrons were stunned into silence and failed to applause, while others maybe didn't like it. In the after-party – maybe a biased sample because it congregates people close to the company and young patrons – the projections were the talk of the party and everybody I spoke with confirmed that they loved them. I'd like to see what patrons in other demographics and not connected to the company thought of it. Maybe the local newspaper – The Charlotte Observer – will have comments.
For our readers, here are the lyrics for this extraordinary chorus, first in Italian, then in English translation:
Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate;
va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli,
ove olezzano tepide e molli
l'aure dolci del suolo natal!
Del Giordano le rive saluta,
di Sionne le torri atterrate…
O, mia patria, sì bella e perduta!
O, membranza, sì cara e fatal!
Arpa d'or dei fatidici vati,
perché muta dal salice pendi?
Le memorie nel petto raccendi,
ci favella del tempo che fu!
O simile di Sòlima ai fati
traggi un suono di crudo lamento,
o t'ispiri il Signore un concento
che ne infonda al patire virtù.
Fly, thought, on wings of gold;
go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
where, soft and mild, the sweet airs
of our native land smell fragrant!
Greet the banks of the Jordan
and Zion's toppled towers…
Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost!
Oh, remembrance, so dear and so fatal!
Golden harp of the prophetic seers,
why dost thou hang mute upon the willow?
Rekindle our bosom's memories,
and speak to us of times gone by!
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.
This chorus scene in itself is worth the ticket. It can't be missed. I strongly encourage readers who are at driving distance from Charlotte to gobble up the last few tickets still available for October 23 and 26. Like Gordon Hawkins said in his interview with us (link above), it is important for a successful Nabucco to have the "Va pensiero" presented in a way that touches the contemporary operagoer.
Now, back to the review of other aspects of this production. From my vantage point I had a full view of the TV monitor that is used to transmit the images of the conductor to the stage so that the artists can get his cues. I looked at the monitor many times and paid close attention to maestro Meena's movements, and to how the orchestra reacted to them. While I've heard pieces conducted by maestro Meena many times, it was my first opportunity to really follow his movements while working a score that I know well. I must say, he is very elegant and precise! Maestro Meena conducts by memory without a printed score, which allows him to pay full attention to the orchestra, resulting in rather high quality playing. The orchestra had smooth transitions, impetus and power where needed, and delicate pianissimo playing when space had to be given to the singers. The tempi were perfect. I've heard Nabuccos that are too fast, and others that are painfully slow. This one was just right. I thought that this was Maestro Meena's best performance to date among those I've heard (which is also saying a lot), and the conductor together with the orchestra in my opinion were the most valuable musical assets tonight – even above the chorus and the singers. This was quite evident from the moment the overture started – I immediately thought "we are in for a treat."
The second most valuable aspect was the chorus. Opera Carolina has a good one, and in this chorus-heavy piece, they were put to good use. I spoke with a chorus member in the after-party, and he was telling me how difficult this opera is for the chorus, given the intense acting that is required, and the fact that they simultaneously depict two very different camps – the Assyrians and the Hebrews. Well, one wouldn't notice the difficulty, since they did it all in a seemingly effortless way, and were great throughout the entire performance.
Singing by the chorus was great, but by the principals wasn't perfect. There were moments in the first act when the non-warmed-up singers faced difficulties. At the very beginning I feared a bit for the performance. Brenda Harris for example had some trouble navigating the speedy shifts from high to low and vice-versa, resulting in a passagio that wasn't pitch-stable, and in a thinning of the top which became too steely. Brian Arreola also had some initial trouble with a bit of excessive piangente style in his phrasing. Even the seasoned Gordon Hawkins started up a bit tentative (maybe suffering the impact of his role debut – it's his first Nabucco; when we chatted afterwards, he did indeed confess to some initial nervousness). Two singers who remained stable throughout the performance and did not exhibit a bit of a shaky start were Andrew Gangestad and Ola Rafalo.
Fortunately, once warmed-up, the three singers above improved significantly, with particularly successful third and fourth acts for Brenda and Gordon, and second half of the first act for Brian. Brenda Harris did a lot better in the more delicate and intimate parts with lower volume. Like she said in her interview, she believes that Abigaille needs to be a bit more introspective and less shouty than what some singers try to do. Indeed, her best moments were the ones when the dynamics were low, and she was very touching in the aria when Abigaille has already poisoned herself and expresses guilt and regret. She was greeted with many "Brava" endorsements by the public after that scene.
Gordon Hawkins also grew into the role. His best moments were the more delicate ones as well, just like Brenda, such as in the scene when he is alone in his quarters and engages in a monologue (Act 4, scene 1). The ovation he received after this part was the biggest in the evening – the public must have been very touched by his exquisite Italianate phrasing and precise dynamic variations. Gordon demonstrated thoroughly what he has learned in almost 35 years of career, with sophisticated musicality. I was one of the people shouting "Bravo" for him.
Comparatively, the public reacted less to Ola Rafalo, which was a bit unfair to her, because as a matter of fact she may have produced the best singing of the evening, in spite of her role being smaller. Ola has a very powerful mezzo-soprano instrument and she uses it with good technique, producing her notes with a great deal of precision. She has a very pleasant timbre and her passagio is smooth with perfect pitch control. Like I said, she started up already warm and didn't miss a beat or a note. She is also a strikingly beautiful lady, and even more so in person, in her regular clothes in the after-party. This young singer is one to be watched. In addition to her gifts, I just loved her quote in our interview, saying that singing Wagner is like reclining in an involving hot tube bath that waves its way around oneself. I plan to use her quote in our future Volume 3 of Opera Lively's interview series on paperback. Visit olarafalo.com for more details about her.
[An interruption in my review – the fire alarm in my hotel went off and loudspeakers told guests to use the stairs and exit the building – I got a 13th floor room so it was a long trip down… I took with me my most important possessions: my wedding ring, my laptop, and my iPhone… other guests had laptops too; sign of the times… Two fire trucks downstairs; then an all-clear was given (it seems like it was a small microwave fire in one of the units) and I was able to resume my review – at 2:40 AM!]
Andrew Gangestad, like Ola, was good throughout the entire show and one of the strongest singers. Also, a good surprise came from Kenneth Overton who was an excellent comprimario. He is also a young singer; I'd be curious to see how his career develops.
Sets were sleek and simple: two stone walls on each side of the stage, each with a door used to get artists and chorus in and out; another larger stone wall in the back which serves as a screen for digital projections; some blocks that people can climb and sing on top of them. These sets are used throughout all four acts; variations are delivered by the digital projections. I thought that this was only partially successful. Sometimes the projections were also stark and in gray hues, and as much as I generally like minimalist sets, this one at times looked a bit grim and could have used some livelihood and a bit of change from act to act in the sets themselves, not only the projections (lest it all looks semi-staged rather than staged – unlike for example the gorgeous and ever-changing sets this same company presented in their recent The Pearl Fishers). This said, many of the projections were very compelling, like the one in the king's mad scene, when the Assyrian King in the projection distorts its shape and then shatters into pieces. Furthermore, it was explained in the pre-opera lecture that these minimalist sets enabled fast changes between scenes, allowing the company to present the music complete, with no cuts, and still remain within the 3-hour limit (when breached, overtime fees make the production more expensive – hey, whatever enables our fine regional companies to operate strongly with a balanced budget is fine with me).
Acting wasn't the strongest point of this production. In general the blocking had the singers remaining quite static on stage. It is true that this is a frequent characteristic of most Nabucco productions (which are often staged in a solemn way); I guess I'd like to see a more dynamic one, for a change. The fact that the most spectacular scene was exactly the one in which there was unexpected movement – the "Va pensiero" sing – suggests that maybe a bit more locomotion and wider acting range would have improved the show. Another scene that had a lot of impact also contained more action: at one point an Assyrian soldier beheads a Hebrew prisoner, and it was done with a knife in a way that maybe deliberately mimics the recent ISIS beheadings in the news (when I chatted with Maestro Meena at the end, he did seem to suggest a parallel, there, as he was also wondering what the public's reaction to this scene will be).
I have some mixed feelings about the costumes. Some were very nice but others were less appealing.
Lighting on the other hand was excellent with enough variations that matched well the scenes.
The final act was very accomplished across the board, with more color and movement, and very good singing (all singers hit act IV in peak production and no vocal fatigue).
Standing, center, Overton and Harris, surrounded by chorus members
It's time for the verdict. This was a very good Nabucco with some fascinating moments, but also a couple of shortcomings.
1. Maestro Meena and the Charlotte Symphony were spot on – this is as good as it gets; the conducting and playing tonight were among the best I've ever heard, and the highest musical value of the evening. It was a true pleasure to hear. We are blessed at Opera Carolina with an excellent conductor and a truly superior orchestra.
2. The chorus was excellent, and added almost as much pleasure as the orchestra.
3. "Va pensiero" was arguably the best I've ever seen. This in itself recommends this show.
3. Ola and Andrew were good throughout the show. Brian improved in the second half of Act I, and Gordon and Brenda were excellent in acts III and IV. Comprimarios were good, especially Kenneth. So, there was good singing *overall* (but see cons, below).
4. Ola is extremely beautiful. While looks are not all in opera, she does add to the spectator's experience since she is very convincing as the object of Ismaele's love, not to forget that she can sing too and very well! A great young artist, to be watched!
5. The digital projections had fabulous moments (the distortion/shattering of the Assyrian King, the shimmering river waters in "Va pensiero", the Holocaust images).
6. There was another daring part (the beheading). I like the fact that Opera Carolina is shaking things up a bit and daring to produce scenes with high emotional impact.
7. Lighting was excellent.
8. The music was presented complete, with no cuts.
1. At least three singers started up cold and had some difficulties in Act 1 (but then improved; see pros above).
2. Blocking was a bit static.
3. Acting wasn't strong.
4. Sets at times looked grim.
1. Costumes – some very good, some less successful.
Now, what should we make of the grade? Eight pros but four cons and one neutral should bring the grade significantly down, right? No, wrong. Let's pay attention to what the cons are: three of them are non-musical, one is musical. Opera is primarily music, and the musical values in any opera have three components: orchestra/conductor, chorus, and singers. Well, the first two weren't simply good; they were truly exquisite and outstanding. Now, the only one of these components that wasn't ideal, did get significantly better as the show went on (which *also* figures as a pro therefore sort of cancels the objection), so, maybe it was just opening night jitters and need for longer warm-up before the performance, and in any case the average of "outstanding + outstanding + starting less well but then improving" is still pretty high, so one needs to understand that the evening was musically *very* rewarding. Even in those productions when everything else is bad, when the musical aspects are this good, it's a recommended show, period! In this case, not only the music was phenomenal, but many other high points did exist.
Also, like I said, the pro # 3 recommends the show just by itself. I mean, the parts that are good are extremely good, not just correct. A Nabucco with the best "Va pensiero" I've ever seen, I'd like myself to come back for the next two shows!
And then, con # 2 is pretty much shared with all Nabucco productions I've seen, so we can barely blame Opera Carolina for it – and again, the grim sets don't always stay grim; there are many good projections, so this item also gets to be sort of even (maybe I should move it to neutral).
We are left with several strong points, and the only con that is not offset by pros is a bit of subdued acting (not a big deal). Maybe I'm being a bit exigent with the acting (which definitely wasn't bad; just a bit subdued which often happens when blocking is static), and this is likely to be because I'm still feeling the impact of Anna Netrebko's phenomenal acting in Macbeth which I watched three days earlier (the Live in HD encore on 10/15 from the 10/11/14 show – this is setting the bar too high, I guess – it's hard to find an artist who can match Ms. Netrebko, of course).
Shows that are obviously recommended can't be graded any lower than B+, which is the lowest grade I still call "recommended." To make it clear I should call B+ "barely recommended" – more on this below – Obviously this production is better than that, so now we are in A territory. What remains to be seen is: A- (recommended but with many flaws), simply A (recommended), A+, very recommended, and A++, highly recommended.
I'd say it's A because there are areas to improve but not many, and most likely after the jitters of the opening night are conquered (for some singers it's even worse because it was a role debut), it will easily get to A+. It can't be A++ which I reserve for practically flawless shows (and Opera Carolina did have its share of those, in the recent past). Anyway, the bottom line is that this was a very good Nabucco, being gauged right now by a rather demanding spectator (yours truly) still dreaming of the unfairly high standard of the stratospheric acting seen three days earlier [see my review of Anna's Macbeth (here)].
So, this is an opportunity to clarify our ratings (I will try to keep these in mind for future reviews, for consistency).
A++ Highly recommended (practically flawless, seemingly perfect)
A+ Very recommended with strong production and musical values all around but a couple of rare flaws
A Recommended, with strong musical values and some high production points but some areas to improve
A- Recommended, but with many areas to improve
B+ Barely recommended (but please understand that it is still recommended, so, it should be seen)
B Enjoyable for some sectors of the viewing public (such as fans of a particular performer who does well)
B- Not recommended unless one has time to kill and no better performances to see, given the rare pros
C Definitely not recommend. A failed production. Nothing good about it. No need for + or – nuances
D Atrocious, offensive and/or revolting. Well, we don't bother with reviewing those and we regret the time and money spent with them
So, this was a grade A recommended show, and I'm confident that nights 2 and 3 will be A+ (very recommended). It's truly in-between these two grades.
Opera Carolina did it again: they tackled a very difficult opera, and presented it with excellent musical values and many strong points, some of them sublime. Bravo, maestro Meena and his forces, and I look forward to the continuation of the season, with Turandot and Lucia di Lammermoor.