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?
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.
But none of the opera’s characters fit the standard mold. Verdi tailored it to the stars he had on hand, who happened to be a bass and a baritone: Nabucco, the king of the Assyrians (sung at the WNO by the baritone Franco Vassallo in his company and role debuts) and the high priest of the Israelites, Zaccaria (the Turkish bass Burak Bilgili).
And none of the soloists gets the main aria: That’s reserved for the chorus of Hebrew prisoners (quiz question: How many 19th-century operas feature a chorus of Jews?). “Va, pensiero” shows the prisoners sitting and weeping by the waters of Babylon, a biblical tableau. It’s also one of the great tunes in opera, and it’s traditional (especially in Europe) to encore it after the first time through, and for the audience to sing along. So unfamiliar is “Nabucco” in this country that it was seen as noteworthy that James Levine repeated the chorus at the Met’s 2001 production, going against the company’s inviolate no-encores tradition. (He opened a can of worms, as there have been several encores since.)
Strassberger himself is going traditional with this production, in deliberate contrast to his “Hamlet” here in 2010 (“I wanted to flex my design muscles”). His “Nabucco” will be a kind of a play-within-a-play, embracing the opera’s old-fashioned qualities, “celebrating the tradition of Italian painted scenery and semaphoric acting style” (the sets are handpainted in Italian set workshops, in a tradition reaching back to the 18th century). The Bible story is set against the backdrop of the climate of political ferment in which Verdi was composing it: 1840s Italy, chafing under Austrian rule.
“Nabucco” is sometimes criticized for being static — though it’s no more static, Strassberger points out, than contemporary operas by Donizetti, or late Rossini operas. At bottom, it’s a work with a flashy soprano part, a mad scene, a thunderbolt from God and music that’s supposed to make you sing along. When it debuted, it was smashing popular entertainment.
That may not be enough to reanimate it into more than a curiosity on these shores. But it’s really worth making the effort — and preparing to sing along with “Va, pensiero.”
Strassberger won’t reveal how he’s staging that. “I’ve got a trick up my sleeve with ‘Va, pensiero’ because of the whole political surrounding of the thing,” he says. “I think I’ve come up with a clever angle to tick both boxes.”
runs for eight performances, through May 21. Tickets are available at the Kennedy Center box office or www.kennedy-center.org/wno.