Culture & Conversation

History repeats in operatic style


Nabucco, Opéra de Montréal, to September 27 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts

The opening night of Nabucco has set the bar high not only for the remaining performances of this Verdi favourite, but also the rest of Opéra de Montréal’s 2014-15 season. Led by two European imports of powerful voice and presence, this three-hour drama had enough in reserve to deliver the knockout blow when the cast ostensibly took their bows – something those who usually rush for the exit should note.

The opera that launched the young Giuseppe Verdi’s career, Nabucco premiered in Milan in 1842. Inspired by the historical-Biblical Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar, the title is derived from the Italian version of his name, Nabucodonosor. For those not up with their theological studies, there’s a lot to follow in this story of political and religious struggle.

Nabucco invades Jerusalem, where his daughter, Fenena, is held hostage by the Hebrew priest, Zaccaria. Ismaele raises the ire of his fellow Hebrews by protecting Fenena, his secret lover. He also angers the sword-wielding Abigaille, Nabucco’s other daughter (or is she?), when she demands that Ismaele love her instead. Nabucco enters in bloody triumph and puts a stop to all this melodrama – but only temporarily as there’s a rollercoaster power struggle between him and Abigaille, during which he temporarily goes barking mad, and the Hebrew god gains a few converts.

Italian baritone Paolo Gavanelli is excellent in the title role. Apart from some lack of vocal nuance during Act 1, his large voice, also marked by beautiful tone, delighted. Furthermore, he had the acting chops to convincingly portray Nabucco as a power-hungry ruler who falls into madness then rises again through remorse.

The principal cast’s other stand-out is Russian Tatiana Melnychenko, a dramatic soprano whose commanding voice and presence delivered a memorably menacing Abigaille. She sang with great power, but also with the flexibility to occasionally trill, or trip along the scale.

Ievgen Orlov was somewhat wooden as Zaccaria, and sang a little flat during Act 1, but generally his bass had the necessary gravitas. (I wonder whether this Ukrainian discussed the opera’s theme of political struggle with his Russian co-star.) American Margaret Mezzacappa and Canadian Antoine Bélanger were solid in the diminishing roles of Fenena and Ismaele, the latter especially noteworthy for the sweetness of his tenor.

The Opéra de Montréal Chorus once again demonstrated their ample capacity to handle chorus-heavy Verdi’s vocal demands, and the almost equally important requirement of moving around stage with purpose, whether en masse, in groups or singly. Their rendition of Nabucco‘s big hit, popularly known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, was unquestionably a highlight of the performance. Orchestre Métropolitain also upheld their consistently high standards of accompaniment, under the baton of Francesco Maria Colombo.

This Thaddeus Strassberger-directed co-production by the Minnesota, Philadelphia and Washington National operas is re-mounted for Opéra de Montréal by Leigh Holman. Although there is some uncertain stage direction (particularly in that busy, plot-heavy Act 1, which seemed to weigh on many performers), it is an otherwise compelling theatrical work that presents Nabucco as a performance within a performance.

To heighten the theme of political and religious struggle, the opera is presented as if during its premiere season in Milan, when Catholic Italy was occupied by Protestant Austria. An opera within a (silent) play, as it were.

This conceit begins charmingly, with footlights being hand-lit, and finely dressed dignitaries taking their seats in three tiers of boxes at the set’s extremity (where they remain throughout the performance), but the soldiers’ presence becomes more menacing with each interval. When the cast take their bow, to the actor-dignitaries rather than the actual audience, the oppression and rebellion informing this top layer of theatricality is fully revealed through an encore that marks the performance’s emotional high point.

The production’s mid-19th century context informs what is seen on the stage-within-the-stage, particularly the predominantly two-dimensional sets, which effectively create an illusion of depth and monumental architecture. There’s also an old-fashioned pyrotechnic surprise. Other elements are traditional too, including atmospheric, often golden lighting, and costumes of classical grace that present the Hebrews in humble whites and Assyrians in gorgeous jewel tones.

Bravo, Opéra de Montréal. Let’s hope Nabucco is a sign of more good things to come from the company during this all-too-short 2014-15 season.

Nabucco continues September 23, 25 and 27. More information at

PHOTO: Yves Renaud

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