The story itself is operatic. Tradition has it that the young composer Giuseppe Verdi, dejected after the death of his wife and children and the failure of his comic opera “Un Giorno di Regno,” said he would never write again. Then along came a libretto he couldn’t refuse, and within a few months he had scored his biggest-ever success. The opera’s centerpiece, a memorable chorus, became a de facto anthem of the Italian Risorgimento, and when Verdi died in 1901 and was borne in state through the streets of Milan, it was sung by the crowds on the sidewalks.
So what was this famous opera? “Nabucco.” Yes, the Bible story of King Nebuchadnezzar. What do you mean you haven’t heard of it?
(MARTY SOHL/METROPOLITAN OPERA) - Zeljko Lucic, Maria Guleghina, and David Crawford in the title role of the Metropolitan Opera's production Verdi's ‘Nabucco.’
(Marty Sohl/METROPOLITAN OPERA) - Zeljko Lucic in the title role of the Metropolitan Opera's production Verdi's ‘Nabucco.’
All right, if you’re reading this, you probably have heard of “Nabucco,” which had its premiere in 1842 in Milan and which the Washington National Opera is doing — for the first time — this spring (it opens Saturday night). But the opera still serves as a reminder of what a fault line remains between the United States and the wellsprings of operatic tradition. When the NSO performed “Fidelio,” Beethoven’s only opera, in March as a spectacular highlight of their season, I realized it’s done infrequently enough that many of my friends and acquaintances in the audience had never heard it live. And while “Nabucco” is so popular in most of Europe that it’s done in sports arenas, it’s still a relative rarity in this country. Even the Metropolitan Opera has done only two productions in its history.
As a result, an opera that is viewed across the pond as a rip-roaring, toe-tapping, oompahing singalong is, in the United States, often regarded as an offbeat curiosity, an object worthy of study and quite possibly difficult to appreciate.
Thaddeus Strassberger, who’s directing the opera at WNO, is familiar with the phenomenon, having staged a number of less-known operas over the years. “These pieces people approach almost like performing an autopsy on a dead corpse,” he said by phone last week, “trying to figure out why it doesn’t live again.”
There’s plenty of life in “Nabucco,” though, as Strassberger is the first to point out. The very overture should signal to anyone worried about sitting through an unfamiliar piece that he or she has nothing to fear: The bigger risk is not being able to get the often jingly tunes out of your ear after you leave.
So why hasn’t it caught on? Perhaps because it doesn’t fit our expectations. For one thing, the love story is not the main event: Fenena, Nabucco’s daughter who loves the Israelite general Ismaele, isn’t even the female lead. The main soprano, Abigaille, not only has to pine unrequited, and turns out to be an illegitimate child of slaves rather than a princess, but she has one of the hardest parts in all of opera, bristling with high-flying vocal fireworks. Indeed, the difficulty of casting this role adequately is often cited as a reason the opera isn’t done more. Strassberger doesn’t buy that. “Show me a ‘Traviata’ that’s not difficult to cast,” he says. Yet “every regional company does it, with varying degrees of success.” But there are more sopranos who can hit the notes of “Traviata” than emerge with the full-bore dramatic coloratura of Abigaille.