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Review: San Diego Opera’s ‘Nabucco’ is dazzling

San Diego Opera clearly has a hit in its superb production of Verdi’s rarely-performed “Nabucco.”

Loosely based on Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and enslavement of the Jews in Babylon, the opera, considered to be Verdi’s first masterpiece, is musically exciting, visually stunning, and moves along at a breakneck pace.

“Nabucco” differs from other operas in not being primarily about thwarted romantic love. Instead, it is about power: the lust for power which drives Nabucco’s daughter Abigaille to imprison her father, condemn her sister, and seize Babylon’s crown for herself, and Nabucco’s power struggle with Jehovah, who strikes him with a lightning bolt when he declares himself a god.

Because its central theme is power, the opera’s most memorable figures are not the obligatory romantic couple — Nabucco’s younger daughter, Fenana, and the handsome young Hebrew Ismaele — but the domineering and driven Abigaille, the powerful and arrogant Nabucco, and Jewish High Priest Zaccaria, who alone has faith that, even in faraway Babylon, the Jewish God will save the Jews. Similarly, the opera’s loveliest duet is not sung by the lovers, but is Abigaille’s Act III duet with her father, with Nabucco pleading for Fenena’s life.

Every member of the excellent cast sings wonderfully, looks his/her part, and can act acceptably (from a slightly wooden but vocally adept Fenena to a movingly-portrayed Nabucco, who, in the wake of the lightning bolt, has “lost his senses” for the duration of Act III). But the evening’s top vocal honors must go to French soprano Sylvie Valayre as Abigaille. She bursts onstage in armor in Act I, with her armies at the Temple gates, and her performance, in one of opera’s most demanding roles, in nothing short of magnificent.

This opera brims with mighty choruses sung at full voice by everyone; Abigaille is asked to sing more powerfully than all the rest, to be heard above the chorus, to sing the high note in every climax, and she succeeds, over and over. Yet her voice is more than just powerful; it is also radiant and supple, and she is utterly comfortable in the high tessitura demanded by the role. Her lyrical soliloquy at the beginning of Act II permits her to demonstrate a lush and almost delicate vocal quality not possible in the thundering choruses.

American baritone Richard Paul Fink is a commanding presence as Nabucco. After a tentative start in Act I, when his voice seemed a bit thin and nasal, he gathered himself in Act II and displayed a large and glorious voice as well as significant acting talent, including the ability to sing effectively while writhing on the floor after the lightning bolt. All of this explains why artistic director Ian Campbell recruited Fink for the role when the scheduled baritone withdrew in December.

Fink, who is used to “weighty” roles but had never performed Nabucco, learned the role in four weeks, and performed it with absolute authority. American bass Raymond Aceto made an impressive Zaccaria, and especially displayed his lovely and resonant voice in his aria in Act II, which featured a cello solo.

“Nabucco’s” final star is the chorus, of which Verdi asks far more here than is typically asked of an opera chorus, and the chorus more than rises to the occasion. From Act I’s opening chorus, in the Temple in Jerusalem with Nabucco at the gates, to the famous chorus of the Hebrew slaves, “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (which was once so well-known in Milan that crowds in the streets sang it on the day of Verdi’s funeral), the opera chorus acquitted itself splendidly, adding greatly to the evening’s splendor.

American tenor Arthur Shen and Israeli mezzo-soprano Susanna Poretsky competently portray the lovers, Fenena and Ismaele; Shen has a ravishing voice. Italian conductor Edoardo Müller kept the orchestra on track, and the singers, understandably, since much of the music is fiendishly difficult, watched him like hawks. The several sets, designed by Michael Yeargan, have the appropriate biblical massiveness and simplicity. The costumes, designed by Jane Greenwood and Marie-Louis Waleck, are wonderful, particularly the elaborate and glittering robes worn by Abigaille and Nabucco to demonstrate their royalty. Lotfi Mansouri’s stage direction was, for the most part, effective.

All in all, this “Nabucco” is dazzling. Don’t stay home just because “Nabucco” is unfamiliar. It’s splendid, and you may never see it done better.

Candace Carroll is an SDNN contributor.

For another viewpoint, see the article by SDNN Arts & Entertainment editor Valerie Scher

About 'Nabucco'
What: San Diego Opera’s production of “Nabucco,” by Giuseppe Verdi

When: Performances continue at 7 p.m. on February 23, 8 p.m. on February 26, and 2 p.m. on February 28

Where: Civic Theatre, Third Avenue and B Street, downtown San Diego

How much: $35 to $190

Tickets/information: (619) 533-7000; www.sdopera.com

Broadcast: 7 p.m. on March 7 on XLNC1 (104.9FM)