Nabucco

John Robert Lindsey (Ismaele) and Victoria Vargas (Fenena) in the Minnesota Opera’s “Nabucco.”

by MICHAEL J. OPPERMAN & EVA VON DASSOW

Minnesota Opera’s 50th Anniversary Season opens with the company’s first presentation of Verdi’s Nabucco, the opera that Verdi considered to be the beginning of his artistic career.  The composer fully exploited the orchestra’s expressive capacity, and the musicians give a persuasive account of Verdi’s potent score.

We’re fortunate to have another visit from Brenda Harris, who has appeared in a number of Minnesota Opera’s productions over the years between her performances at houses that include the Met, the Teatro Massimo in Palermo and Opera du Rhin in Strasbourg. She is brilliant as Abigaille, the bastard elder daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (Nabucco, for short).  Her voice fluently conveys anguish and vulnerability, authority and courage.  John Relyea as Zaccaria is also especially good.  The“finale parte prima” is particularly moving, demonstrating Verdi’s command of writing ensemble pieces and showcasing Harris alongside John Robert Lindsey as Ismaele and Victoria Vargas as Fenena.

Unfortunately, Minnesota Opera’s production is not an ideal showcase for the music and the singers, riddled with incongruities as it is.  For instance, midway through Act 3, Abigaille burns a document attesting her slave parentage.  Would such a document, in Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar’s time, have been combustible?  Or would it have been a clay tablet, inscribed in cuneiform?  Does this production care?

Verdi and his librettist surely didn’t.  They made a composite hash of history and melodrama, pressing together Judah’s Babylonian captivity (known from II Kings and the prophet Jeremiah) and the tale of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness (in the book of Daniel) into a wholly fictional template featuring a pair of Babylonian princesses and a Judean paramour.

Working in 1841, they would have had virtually no information about cuneiform or Babylonian civilization.  Had they wished, however, they could have been faithful to the biblical accounts of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and the exile of Judah.  Instead they concocted a strange story with an improbable plot in which the younger daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, Fenena, who has previously rescued the Judean prince Ismaele, is somehow taken captive in Jerusalem (what was she doing anywhere near the battlefield?) by Zaccaria, the high priest of Yahweh, and Ismaele promises to free her.  This business is interrupted by the illegitimate elder daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, Abigaille (how did she get a Hebrew name?), who has snuck into the temple, which is then captured anyway, whereafter all parties go off to Babylon where Abigaille schemes to usurp the throne while Ismaele resists his countrymen’s accusations of treason, Zaccaria converts Fenena into a devotee of Yahweh, and Nabucco goes mad …  Meanwhile, Nebuchadnezzar is indifferently called king of Assyria, following Herodotus, who thought Babylon was in Assyria — though the biblical sources knew better.

The Minnesota Opera creative team cannot be held responsible for the historical and dramatic solecisms built into the opera, but why they compounded them with their own is baffling.  For example, in what period do they mean to set this production?  They have provided it with the “frame” of a production in (apparently) Verdi’s time by bringing on stage an “audience” accompanied by a parade of soldiers during the overture, who are then mostly left in the corner for the duration.  But the scenic design utilizes all sorts of elements unknown in 1841. Assyrian reliefs and statuary that would be excavated in the coming years are the principal basis for the scenery that is meant to be Babylon, along with the famous Ishtar Gate, which is indeed from Babylon, but was not excavated until the 20th century.  Not only are the Assyrian reliefs not Babylonian, they predate Nebuchadnezzar by two and a half centuries.  If the creative team meant to set the action in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon (and in Jerusalem on the eve of its fall), why didn’t they bother to get the setting right?  And if they didn’t mean to set the opera in its ostensible historical period, why did they use real Assyrian and Babylonian material at all?  And what’s that globe surmounted by an eagle doing on stage in Act 3, looking as if it belongs in a wannabe Versailles?

Maybe the globe and similar anachronisms are intended to clue us in on the “real” setting of the opera, evoked by a tableau of people in (vaguely) 19th-century dress revealed behind a scrim in the second scene of Act 3 when the Judean exiles sing “Va, pensiero” (the chorus inspired by Psalm 137).  So is it not the restoration of Judah, but the independence and unification of Italy (still well in the future when Verdi composed this work) that is the real subject?  This would seem to be the message intended by the repetition of the chorus against the backdrop of the Italian flag (!) after the action of the opera is concluded.

Brenda Harris (Abigaille) in the Minnesota Opera’s “Nabucco.”

If that was the idea, it was not coherently formulated by this production, which instead begs the question what other notions may inform it.  What, for instance, is the meaning of dressing up the devotees of Baal (supposedly the principal god worshipped in Babylon, although the ziqqurat of Marduk is portrayed on a backdrop and mentioned by name in the program notes) in crimson cloaks under tall hats with facial screens so they look like the KKK in burqas dyed red?  When all the principal characters, including the wicked high priest of Baal, join in a song of praise and prayer to Yahweh, toward the end, what is the message the production means to convey?  What are its present-day motives and purposes?

None of this might annoy if the creative team had taken care of dramatic details.  But the stage direction is busy, perplexing, and sporadically careless.  In Act 1, Abigaille effectively manipulates Ismaele with a sword, with which she threatens both him and his beloved Fenena, but which he then casually takes from her during a duet.  He then does nothing with it and Abigaille soon gets it back equally casually.  In Act 2, while Abigaille contemplates status and power in song, a gaggle of those crimson-garbed Baal-worshippers enter and perform a bit of choreography that ends in prostration (not toward her).  Are they meant to illustrate unthinking pagan submission to false idols, or what?  Their antics have nothing to do with her soliloquy.  One is glad to find poor Nabucco all alone in his cage in Act 4, temporarily bereft of any extra stage business so he can sing by himself.

The production is visually striking and yields no dearth of material to discuss. Unfortunately, the stage direction and scenic design distract from the performances of the singers and musicians.  The team adds layers of confusion instead of providing visual clarity and cohesion to a composition that has fundamental historical and narrative problems, leaving these reviewers perplexed

Nabucco by Verdi. Presented by the Minnesota Opera, September 22, 25, 27, 29 and 30. Information at http://www.mnopera.org/season/performances?module=performances&showid=1955/.

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