Nabucco, Verdi

Michigan Opera Theatre

17th October, 2009

Verdi's Evil Knievel

Michigan Opera Theatre began its 2009-2010 season not with a dramatic downbeat but with a lone man and a microphone. General director David DiChiera emerged center stage from behind the grand drape with a brief welcome and heartfelt 'thank you' to the Ford Motor Company for its continued sponsorship. The financial plight of the Motor City is no secret. Many corporations have dramatically reduced charitable funding and, sadly, the arts are almost always the first to go. In light of these hard times, one could not doubt the sincerity of DiChiera's message. The audience responded with knowing enthusiasm.

Then came the dramatic downbeat. From the overture to the final curtain Maestro Steven Mercurio helped breath life into this challenging but immensely gratifying score. Never letting the drama distort into melodrama, Mercurio kept the orchestra sharp and adeptly negotiated the balance between soloist, orchestra, and chorus throughout the entire opera. The chorus' opening lament established straightaway that their vocal presence would be an integral part of the production. This commitment culminated in the moving 'va pensiero,' gracefully prepared by chorus master Suzanne Mallare Acton.

Photos by: John Grigaitis

The orchestra shone, especially in the breathtaking moments where Verdi designated small groupings or sections to paint vivid emotional landscapes. The strings were arrestingly beautiful in Zaccaria's prayer, while the woodwinds stunningly punctuated the Act III chorus. The Act IV solo moments for clarinet, cello, and flute realized wonderfully the ethereal, otherworldly texture Verdi gave to Abigaille's impassioned final scene.

The score of Nabucco is notoriously difficult and the plot rivals Il trovatore for the 'most likely to confuse' award. It is because of this that an opera company's choice to produce Nabucco is seen in the industry as something akin to an Evil Knievel stunt. Everyone holds their breath, waits for calamity, and, on the rare occasion that it succeeds, euphorically applauds. Fortunately, for Michigan Opera Theater, this production lands the proverbial jump.

The production profited from the savvy casting of its principal singers. Young lovers Ismaele (Noah Stewart) and Fenena (Carla Dirlikov) looked and sounded appropriate to their respective roles. While Dirlikov seemed preoccupied with working the gorgeous but simple costume designed by Anibal Lapiz, Stewart worked overtime to portray the confusion and zeal of Ismaele. Particularly awkward was the Hebrews' taunting of Ismaele, in which he seemed to take the weight of the entire production on his shoulders, resulting in a jilted pantomime of fear and bewilderment. Happily, Stewart's vocal interpretation was clear and honest. His robust tenor was open, lyric, and entirely appropriate to the role.

Marco di Felice's portrayal of the title role potentially left the viewer as conflicted as the character himself. While admirably negotiating the difficult tessitura of the role, di Felice presented a generic and safe interpretation. The singing was, on a technical level, executed flawlessly but somehow lacked the darkness and core sound most often associated with Nabucco. The quality of the voice was something akin to a heldentenor, effortlessly rattling off A naturals. The technical proficiency with which di Felice approaches this role is stunning, however, and if were he to tackle this role in ten to fifteen years it would be well worth the trip. The missing element in his portrayal lies within the gap between the expectations of the role and his essential timbre. The fact that he did not choose to compromise his core sound is a testament to his approach and leads one to believe that he may end up being a Nabucco of the future.

As Abigaille, one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire, Francesca Patanè gives appreciated energy and effort, but misses the mark. A soprano must have a Quixotic resolve to approach this role in the first place but it was clear that she was not Abigaille.

The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the powerful performance of bass Burak Bilgili. In an oft-thankless role Bilgili presented a Zaccaria who embodied beautifully the plight of his people. Bilgili's moving bass turned out to be the glue of the opera, epitomizing with his uncompromising legato line a purity of sound not often found in Verdi basses. One of the evening's highlights was the end of Zaccarias' prayer where he sustains a low F in and exits the stage. This quiet moment was enhanced by the poignant and subtle lighting design of Kendall Smith. As an actor, Bilgili was not afraid to hold on to a moment, something the rest of the cast seemed to distrust.

Director Mario Corradi delivered pretty tableaus that were clearly realized but the larger moments lacked specificity. His production was saved by committed performances that overshadowed the less glorious moments such as the painfully clumsy exits of the chorus.

It may be that the definitive production of Nabucco has yet to be staged, but Michigan Opera Theatre offers a bold, moving production. It is a feat unto itself that the company took this opera on. Michigan Opera Theatre, like many other opera companies in these times, is presented with difficult choices. In the face of such extreme circumstances, this company has recognized both the importance of one of Verdi's least performed compositions and the viability of Stephen Sondheim in the opera house (A Little Night Music opens next month). It is clear that Michigan Opera Theatre is not constrained by archaic artistic values and is a leader among North American opera houses.

Bottom line: Death is avoided, the jump lands.


Robert Drake


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Production Credits

Conductor: Stephen Mercurio
Director: Mario Corradi
Lighting: Kendall Smith
Costumes: Anibal Lapiz
Chorus Master: Susanne Mallare Acton


Nabucco: Marco di Felice
Abigaille: Francesca Patané
Ishmaele: Noah Stewart
Fenena: Carla Dirlikov
Zaccaria: Burok Bilgili
Ana: Alexa Lokensgard