From this production, one could surmise that Strassberger is a better set designer than a director. The sets were pretty wonderful, and the basic ideas were reasonable — I liked, for instance, the idea that the whole end of the opera, with its surprisingly pat resolution, is a fever-dream of the imprisoned Nabucco, who summons up the spectres of his past in a rosy daydream haze before falling dead. But the execution was a little clumsy, and not only because Strassberger was drawing on bygone conventions.
Spoiler alert: If you want surprises, read no further. Strassberger’s concept centered on the famous chorus “Va, pensiero,” sung in the opera by the Hebrew slaves, which in 19th-century Italy became a veritable anthem of Italian independence. For it, Strassberger moved the audience behind the scenes, so that we saw ballerinas practicing, stagehands moving sets, seamstresses sewing costumes, while the chorus sang in the background. But the scene failed to convey the kind of electricity that was called for. In fact, after the gorgeous opulence of the preceding scenes, it fell a little flat, and the traditional encore seemed dutiful (though it allowed the orchestra to play it without the obvious slips that marred it the first time through) — especially because the audience, at the work’s first WNO performance, didn’t know it well enough to follow tradition and sing along. The evening never quite recovered its energy.
There was still a lot to enjoy. I’m a sucker for Verdi, and while it becomes ever more evident that true Verdi singers are a rare breed these days, WNO assembled a cast — most of the singers in company debuts — that could at least hit the notes and make the thing go. The historicity of the sets helped create the illusion that we were hearing the singers at the premiere, who (obviously) didn’t quite know how Verdi singing went either.
All that was missing was the superstar quality — the sensuality of reveling in sheer vocal sound — that probably characterized the two soloists for whom Verdi wrote the leading roles of Nabucco, the king of Assyria and rebuilder of Babylon, and Zaccaria, the high priest of the Israelites. But if Burak Bilgili (the Zaccaria) didn’t quite have the ideal thundering presence, and if Franco Vassallo’s Nabucco sounded a little constrained at times, both delivered honorably.