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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 21, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 34
Verdi, front and center at Seattle Opera
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Verdi, front and center at Seattle Opera

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

NABUCCO
SEATTLE OPERA
Through August 22


Along with a cast of supreme vocal power and finesse, Seattle Opera's new production of Verdi's Nabucco leapt quite literally into the laps of the audience with a gleaming intensity that I have never seen surpassed. All hail Aidan Lang, the new General Director, for demonstrating genius in coming up with the idea of putting Verdi's music foremost by having the orchestra on-stage and placing the singers in front of the orchestra on an extension of the stage out over the orchestra pit.

With minimal props and sometimes abstract video projections (think floating mountains in the movie Avatar!), the singers were so present, so easily heard, and so much the focus of attention that the music became super-intense. Both Verdi's genius and the singers' talents were magnified, as it were, for our scrutiny and appreciation. Even as the singers projected their roles with in-your-face intensity, the sometimes unbelievable and thus problematic plot became something less of a distraction from the glories of the music. The evening became a fantastic song-fest!

And what glories there are in this score! The young Verdi had his first big success with Nabucco for very good reason. His genius for melody is in full bloom. Not only is the music full of vitality and inspired tunes; Verdi's gift for projecting character is also evident at every turn. Innovation abounds. In a first for opera, he puts the chorus forward for its own 'aria' with a melody so sublime and a passion so central to the hearts of patriotic Italians that 'Va, pensiero' became the unofficial national anthem. Conductor Carlo Montanaro and the superb Seattle Opera Chorus made the most of it with sweeping phrasing, moving soft moments followed by passionate crescendos, and, again, an added intensity from their position out over the pit. (The opera gives the chorus a major role, and ours excelled in all parts.) And, in general, Montanaro's intense leadership pumped up the energy and every brilliant moment in Verdi's score. Coordination with the singers, who were facing away from him, could not have been more perfect.

Regular readers of my reviews are, I'm sure, surprised that I have here highlighted the production before my usual emphasis on the singers, especially when I tell you that this was the strongest cast I've seen since Seattle's last presentation of Wagner's RING cycle. There was not a weak link anywhere. In the voice-killer role of Abigaille, Mary Elizabeth Williams sang with spot-on high C's, not a trace of shrillness, and a beauty of voice throughout the range that simply amazed me. Toss in a level of acting that took no prisoners and you're got a singer-actress of the very highest standard. In this performance, she sang with an ever-present sense of reserves, as though she could go on singing this role forever without damaging her instrument. And the warmth and power of her lower range was astounding. Add to that, beautiful soft singing even in high notes and an elegance of phrasing that made her big aria unforgettable. I rank her with my other favorite soprano these days, Sondra Radvanovsky. (The last time I saw Nabucco live was long ago in Vancouver, BC. The Abigaille was strong on opening night, but I could tell she was 'spending capital' from her vocal estate. By the end of that production's run, her voice was said to be torn up.)

Making his Seattle Opera debut, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn impressed with his powerful voice and ease of production in all ranges. Tenor Russell Thomas continues to make a mark for himself in Seattle. His passionate singing was flawless, and his tone was very pleasing. Debuting, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton displayed a gorgeous voice of warmth and power; how I'd love to hear her up-coming Waltraute in Gotterdämmerung at Washington National Opera! Also impressive were soprano Karen Early Evans, bass-baritone Jonathan Silvia, and tenor Eric Neuville.

In the title role and in his 23rd year at Seattle Opera, baritone Gordon Hawkins was his usual excellent self. After a slightly wobbly beginning, his singing retained all its strength and subtlety for which we revere him. Especially moving was the very soft singing in his pleas to Abigaille and in his later prayer. Vocal shadings again reminded me of the great Leonard Warren.

A new friend remarked to us as we were leaving the auditorium, 'I'm totally spoiled: I want those singers to be always out over the pit like that!' I couldn't agree more.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp6@columbia.edu.

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