Pittsburgh Opera opens its season with the work that made Verdi famous
In searching for a season opener for Pittsburgh Opera, general director Christopher Hahn always wants something with “real punch.” He’s found it in “Nabucco,” the opera that made Giuseppe Verdi famous.
“ ‘Nabucco’ is such a showcase for the company in various aspects — orchestra, chorus and comprimario (supporting) roles taken by resident artists,” he says. “It’s also an opportunity to showcase some major guest artists at the top of their game, and, because it’s by Verdi, it clicks as a perfect season opener.”
Pittsburgh Opera will present “Nabucco” from Oct. 10 to 18 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
Personal tragedy struck Verdi as a young man. His entire family, both children and his wife, died before he started writing “Nabucco.” He’d even spoken of giving up composing.
Verdi was 28 at the opera’s premiere, which was a great success. The composer later wrote: “After ‘Nabucco,’ I always had as many commissions as I wanted.”
Conductor Antony Walker says you can see Verdi’s state of grief “in all the emotional high points of the piece that refer to loss of family. Its heightened emotional content is something that takes this opera into another realm.”
This opera is set apart, according to Walker, by “the incredibly personal writing in the cavatinas and the incredibly beautiful melodies he springs out. I think he is taking over from (Vincenzo) Bellini as the great Italian melodist of the period.”
He points out that “Nabucco” is a bel canto opera, “where the emotional content of the work is taken to new heights.”
Baritone Mark Delavan is returning to Pittsburgh Opera to sing the title role, one he first performed in 1996. He’s enjoyed notable successes here in the title role in “Falstaff” in 2009, Scarpia in “Tosca” in 2012 and the title role in “Rigoletto” in the fall of 2012.
Delavan put “Nabucco” aside for a while in 2004 and found restudying it for Pittsburgh Opera deepened his appreciation. Opera conductor Donald Runnicles and his pianist wife encouraged the baritone to take a bel canto approach and go for sustained long lines rather than a punchy, dramatic delivery. As a result, the singer says he’s found new colors in the Verdi score.
He sees the opera from a different angle and approaches it as four “separate operas called ‘Nabucco.’ ”
“In the first act, he’s an egomaniacal psychopath who says, ‘We’re going to burn down your temple,’ ” Delavan says. “In the second act, he gets his comeuppance. He’s struck insane by a lightning bolt from heaven, knocking his crown off his head, because he had the audacity to say, ‘I am no longer your king. I am your god.’ ”
Nabucco is still delirious in the third act, which finds his daughter Abigaille on the throne. She tricks Nabucco into signing the death warrant for the Hebrews, which includes his other daughter, Fenena, because she’s in love with a nephew, Ismaele, of the Hebrew king and has converted to Judaism. This act includes “Va, Pensiero,” the famous chorus of Hebrew slaves.
Nabucco recovers his sanity in the final act, saves Fenena and the other Hebrews and acknowledges the power of the God of Israel.
Hahn says programming decisions are always affected by the singers he can engage. The rare combination of beauty and power that soprano Csilla Boross will bring to Abigaille encouraged him to mount “Nabucco.”
“My voice is often called a Verdi voice,” she says. “I love ‘Nabucco,’ because I can show so many colors, so much power and so much sensitivity.”
Abigaille is a fearsome character, eager to seize the throne and kill all the Hebrews even though her sister is one of them.
“I never do any operas I don’t like,” Boross says. “I’m totally in love with ‘Nabucco.’ It’s very important for me to find a point where I can forgive her. If I can’t find any good to connect to, I don’t want to do the part.
“She’s had a very tragic life, and I can understand why she’s this shrew. She has no love in her life. She’s completely alone in the world. This guides her tragic end,” she says. “But she also has an aria in which she sings about love lost. This is a beautiful moment of her other side, her sensitive side which has to be shown. That’s why I fell in love with this role.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].
The most famous part of “Nabucco” is the chorus “Va, Pensiero.” It went on to become an anthem for Italian unification and patriotism. To this day, it is a tradition at Italian opera houses for the audience to sing along with the chorus members onstage.
Giuseppe Verdi was already a nationalist and very concerned with freedom before he wrote the opera, conductor Antony Walker says, noting the composer named his children after characters in a play about revolution.
“That’s one of the things that ‘Va, Pensiero’ stirred in him,” Walker says. “The last lines talk about how you could raise your voice in crude lamentation or you could raise your voice in harmony to make a virtue out of suffering. He poured his emotions into it so that, rather than being defiant, it comes across more as elegiac and poetic. In the middle part, the chorus rouses itself to a more defiant state, but it comes back to something that is more introspective and patient and calm.”
The opening notes of the melody of “Va, Pensiero” also serve as a unifying element in Verdi’s score. Walker notes, for example, that when the high priest berates Ismaele for betraying his brethren, the melody is an inversion of “Va, Pensiero,” literally turned upside down.