A towering “Nabucco” at Lyric Opera shows off Verdi’s early masterpiece

What: “Nabucco”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Feb. 12
Phone: 312-332-2244

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s first new offering of the year is “Nabucco,” the opera which helped to establish Verdi early in his career. This production features stellar singing, dramatic stage dressing, and unusual costumes that together make for an unforgettable performance.

While an opera based on the Old Testament hardly seems as if it could be fresh or invigorating, the libretto by Temistocle Solera is suffused with issues not likely to become stale any time soon: the perilous aspects of conflicts between church and state; the corrupting effects of power; the volatile dimensions of dysfunctional families, among others. In Verdi’s day, many interpreted the work as supporting the idea of a unified Italy. In our time, Chicago audiences will find plenty of their own contemporary resonances.

Among the many reasons to love this “Nabucco” is Tatiana Serjan, making her Lyric opera debut. This Russian soprano’s portrayal of Abigaille — the woman who loses the man she loves to her sister Fenena and later learns that she isn’t really Fenena’s sister at all, and thus not a true princess as she had always believed — is rivitting. Serjan’s range is outrageously large and she sounds as good at the top as the bottom. She can power her way through the music or just as easily offer quiet singing with nuanced phrasing, beautifully letting the notes grow and recede as the text demands. Her agility is breathtaking, enabling her to plunge two octaves in a few seconds with skill and grace. Simply put, Serjan is spectacular.

Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic, first seen at Lyric a few years ago as Rigoletto, takes the title role. While he’s often overshadowed by Serjan in the first half of the opera, he gets stronger and stronger after the intermission. His approach is understated at times but by the fourth act, he explodes in intensity and holds the audience in his hands with his burnished singing and artful acting.

As Zaccaria, Dmitry Belosselskiy brings a sense of religious fervor and dignity to the prophet. He employs his rich, fascinating voice with polished confidence. Elizabeth DeShong is a winning Fenena, nicely paired with pleasing tenor Sergei Skorokhodov as her lover Ismaele.

The Lyric Opera Chorus provides magical musical support, opening the opera with stellar singing of a prayer asking their God to protect them from Nabucco. They are gorgeous in the opera’s most famous musical segment, “Va, pensiero,” singing with creamy brilliance. Chorus director Michael Black must surely be proud of their achievement as well as his part in it.
Carlo Rizzi, who hasn’t conducted at Lyric since the 1990s, leads the orchestra in a spirited and idiomatic reading of the score. He knows when to emphasize warmth and when to push for the flash. Verdi’s music, including moments of shimmering gentleness in the brass, airy wonder in the woodwinds, and defiant anger in the strings, are all well played. The stage band, led by Robert Tweten, is also deployed to good effect.

Eye-catching and thoughtful visuals add to the allure of this “Nabucco.” Stage director Matthew Ozawa, set designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Jane Greenwood, and lighting designer Duane Schuler have worked together to create intriguing staging. The set is relatively simple, yet sufficiently cameleon-like to represent Jerusalem, Babylon, a throne room, a prison, and more. Multiple scrims enhance the dramatic effects and each act is introduced by projected Old Testament quotations.

The costumes are a fascinating combination. They could suggest the libretto setting of 586 B.C. or could be seen as something strangely other-worldly, as if out of “Star Trek” or a dark dream. Serjan looks attractive as well as dangerous in a long red dress with accompanying long, two-toned scarf. The huge chorus is handled particularly well, with each group the choristers represent (Hebrews, Babylonian soldiers, Jewish priests, and so forth) dressed similarly, but with sufficient variation to add to the visual interest. The only wrong note comes in the set of Babylonian men given what look like plastic rain coats and oddly angled items presumably meant to be hats, but look more like crumpled boxes perched on their heads.
Large cloth hangings (with a passage from the Torah in the Jerusalem scene and examples of Assyrian cuneiform in Babylonia, underlining the different locations) are given various lighting effects throughout and at a crucial moment come fluttering down in a marvelous suggestion of the destruction of the alter of Baal. The lighting is varied and suited to the action although it tends to far too dim far too much of the time.

With a huge chorus often on stage, the blocking is sometimes static, but Ozawa adds just enough movement to keep things interesting. The scene with the prisoners is appropriately cramped while the throne room scene puts Abigaille towering over Nabucco, clearly showing their respective power as well as the deterioration of their relationship.

This is an utterly marvelous “Nabucco,” one not to be missed.