Verdi’s chorus “Va, pensiero,” from his early opera Nabucco, is a piece that lives on as much in Italian national mythology as in the opera house. Director Thaddeus Strassberger’s new production of Verdi’s biblical drama takes as its central question the meaning of the choral anthem that is now larger than the opera itself. The results for the Washington National Opera are conceptually intriguing, if flawed in realization and insufficiently gripping.
According to the now-debunked myth, the unruly audience at Nabucco’s 1842 premiere at La Scala demanded a “bis” of “Va, pensiero,” despite the Austrian authorities’ express prohibition against encores. Public enthusiasm for “Va, pensiero” supposedly inspired spontaneous patriotic outbursts throughout Italy during the Risorgimento, and Verdi’s cry of an oppressed people has ever since been associated with Italian national aspirations. Just last year, the tradition of encoring “Va, pensiero” became a potent political weapon in the hands of conductor Riccardo Muti in his campaign against the Berlusconi government’s planned cuts to the arts.
Strassberger’s production, which opened Saturday night, re-imagines an early performance of Nabucco in Austrian-dominated northern Italy, with an aristocratic audience chattering away in on-stage boxes and Austrian soldiers overseeing the proceedings. At first, the play-within-a-play concept appears to be a mere conceit allowing the production to embrace unashamedly a Cecil B. DeMille-style Technicolor treatment of the opera. The gorgeously painted flats, also designed by Strassberger, give the production a vivid sense of opulence and biblical grandeur, while garishly costumed dancers and supernumeraries crowd the stage. In terms of visual spectacle and musical drama, the production’s Part 1, with its explosive choral writing, delivers the most consistent excitement of the evening.
Sadly, the action comes to a halt in Strassberger’s treatment of “Va, pensiero,” the heart of the opera. In a misguided tableau set backstage at the opera house, Strassberger attempts to conjure the political mythology of the Risorgimento. As the chorus sings the lamentation of the Hebrew slaves in captivity, the scene juxtaposes seamstresses and stagehands virtuously at work with aristocrats smoking cigars and cavorting with ballerinas. It is a tedious and static scene that takes far too long to assemble and removes us from the ongoing drama, taking much of the air out of the evening. The obligatory encore feels merely perfunctory.
The payoff only comes at the curtain call, when the singer playing Abigaille leads the assembled cast and crew, brandishing the Tricolore, in an unaccompanied and genuinely rousing third rendition of “Va, pensiero.” As the menacing Austrian soldiers attempt to keep things in check, the audience is exhorted (at opening night, mostly unsuccessfully, despite Italian supertitles) to join in the powerful and tense patriotic display. It is only when private lamentation becomes public statement that the disparate elements of Strassberger’s unfocused direction come together, including the staging of the opera’s resolution as Nabucco’s hallucination (as though real political liberation, as yet unrealized, can only come through the aspirations of the Italian people). But it is a problem when the evening gains the most coherence and generates its only sense of real daring after the opera is over.
Musically, the performance belongs to the Washington National Opera Chorus, trained by Steven Gatham, which sings with dauntless power and generates most of the evening’s vocal excitement. In the pit, Philippe Auguin leads a measured performance, with some slack tempos and rhythms lacking in lift, but mostly does justice to Verdi’s earthy score. Alas, with a group of soloists achieving only mixed success, many of the scenes without the chorus lack inner tension and are not nearly gripping enough in the moment.
In the title role, baritone Franco Vassallo offers a sturdy voice but little individuality or eloquence as the troubled king. Under-characterized, Vassallo’s performance, with its wooden acting and lack of variety of vocal coloration, fails to capture the arc of power brought low and then restored. In the fiendishly difficult role of Abigaille, Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross delivers a strident, histrionic performance, with little subtlety in phrasing or introspection when called for. Boross is not a dramatic coloratura soprano, as the role requires, possessing the vocal power but not the agility for the passage work.
In the supporting cast, bass Burak Bilgili, as Zaccaria, has a constrained and somewhat unfocused voice but delivers a genuinely moving moment in the prayer scene. Tenor Sean Panikkar is a youthful, sweet-voiced Ismaele, while mezzo-soprano Géraldine Chauvet contributes a steady, warm-toned Fenena. Bass Soloman Howard, with his dark, firm voice and commanding stage presence, makes a major impression in the minor role of the High Priest of Baal.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with two intermissions.