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Verdi’s ‘Nabucco’ returns in force to the Lyric Opera stage

By Kyle MacMillan | For the Sun-Times

Sibling treachery, religious conversion, romantic rivalry and a coup d’état set against the tumultuous Old Testament backdrop of the Babylonian captivity.

Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar)” has all the makings of grand opera, and they are vividly realized in a visually rich, vocally compelling Lyric Opera of Chicago production that opened Saturday evening.

The company amassed a huge force for this offering, including a massive chorus of 82 singers and 66 musicians in the pit and another 16 offstage — all in addition to the eight soloists in the main cast.

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‘NABUCCO’

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When: Through Feb. 12

Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $20-$349

Info: (312) 827-5600; lyricopera.org

Run time: 2 hours 47 minutes with one intermission

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“Nabuccco” was Verdi’s first big triumph, and it set him firmly on a path as one of the greatest creative forces in operatic history. After its 1842 premiere at La Scala, a Milanese newspaper declared it to be a “clamorous and total success,” and that label could essentially be applied to this version as well.

This is the Lyric’s first production of “Nabucco” since 1997-98, and it brings back the costumes and scenery (with some modifications) from that earlier presentation. But it is a new staging by Matthew Ozawa, who in his directorial debut with the company did a good job of defining the story, shaping the characters and arranging the immense forces arrayed on stage.

The effective set design by Michael Yeargan is a loosely defined architectural structure that doubles as both the Jewish temple and Babylonian palace, with stairs and rear panels that shift into different, arresting configurations as the opera progresses.

Hebrew and (presumably) Akkadian text boldly projected onto the set pieces potently defines and animates the space and provides clarifying context, and telling quotes from the Book of Jeremiah projected onto the front curtain set the scene before each act.

The costumes by Jane Greenwood are not concerned with historical accuracy, drawing their inspiration from varied periods with no small measure of fancy — a valid approach. But the red fatigues and black boots worn by the Babylonian soldiers come off as bizarre, and Nabucco’s weird red velvet suit suggest Santa Claus more than an iron-fisted ruler.

Because it is one of Verdi’s earliest efforts, “Nabucco” does not have the dramatic intensity of his later masterpieces. It often puts more emphasis on arresting tableaux and vocal declamation than action.

That said, there were times when Ozawa could have amped up the urgency. Why not, for example, have the soldiers rush after Nabucco after he reclaims power in Act 4 rather than process out calmly behind him?

Tenor Sergey Skorokhodov as Ismaele in “Nabucco.” | Cory Weaver/Lyric Opera of Chicago
Tenor Sergey Skorokhodov as Ismaele in “Nabucco.” | Cory Weaver/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric assembled a strong, well-meshed cast for this production. It includes mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, who offered an affecting turn as Fenena, and tenor Sergei Skorokhodov, whose expressive singing as Ismaele made up for his sometimes stiff and clichéd stage manner.

Željko Lučić
Željko Lučić

With his imposing stature and big, resounding bass voice, Dmitry Belosselskiy could hardly have been a more commanding presence as Zaccaria, the Jewish high priest. Baritone Željko Lučić touchingly conveyed the pathos of Nabucco after his humbling fall into madness, but he was less effective, at least early on, asserting the conquering might of the Babylonian leader.

The production’s clear star was soprano Tatiana Serjan, who has performed the role of Abigaille in other productions worldwide and showed a thrilling mastery of it here. She has it all: power, agility and captivating tone from the top to bottom of her impressive range, handling Verdi’s coloratura and every other vocal challenge with aplomb. A dynamo on stage, she reveled in every nuance of this character, from Abigaille’s villainous grab for power to her final painful redemption, and she was completely convincing as a tough, sword-wielding military commander.

Deserving particular kudos is Lyric’s chorus, spotlighted repeatedly in this opera and delivering one first-rate performance after another, especially in the well-known “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate.”

Conductor Carlo Rizzi provided capable leadership in the pit, deftly handling the shifting contours of Verdi’s score from the enticing overture onward and ably supporting the singers throughout.

Put simply, the return of “Nabucco” to Lyric’s stage is worth the nearly 20-year wait.