“Nabucco,” Verdi’s third opera, might be unrefined compared with his masterworks. But what it lacks in subtlety and sophistication is made up for in honest storytelling and a score of muscle and dramatic urgency. And Friday night’s Lyric Opera Baltimore performance was just that — not always pretty in terms of singing, direction and design, yet vigorous, passionate and true to its aims.
The modest production, at the Modell Performing Arts Center, kept the biblical story of the Hebrews’ captivity under Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco) bound in tradition, except for the use of projected images. Rudimentary in design, the projections were mainly distracting. Giggles broke out during Nabucco’s mad scene when a stone likeness of the king’s head spun and exploded like an animated screensaver.
“Nabucco” sports three plum roles, but the real star is the chorus, primarily portraying the Hebrews. The Lyric Opera Chorus rose to the occasion, conjuring fear in the frenzied attack on the Hebrew temple and fire when tormenting the traitor Ismaele. Only in the famous “Va pensiero” did the chorus disappoint with slightly tepid singing. The accompanying projections didn’t help. The Hebrews’ thoughts drifted back to their homeland while an ungainly slide show looked forward, tracing Jewish history from Jesus’s crucifixion to emaciated Holocaust victims. It was an intriguing idea that fell flat.
Regarding the soloists, soprano Francesca Mondanaro had horsepower to burn, handy when singing Abigaille, the power-hungry presumed daughter of Nabucco. The treacherous two-octave drops and vaulting high Cs are nearly impossible, and if Mondanaro didn’t pull them off perfectly, she was entirely riveting. Baritone Michael Chioldi was a solid Nabucco, whose elegant singing in the mad scene inspired genuine sympathy. Oren Gradus as the Hebrew priest Zaccaria, slightly underpowered in the low register, sang with requisite bluster and beauty.
Smaller roles were generally adequately cast and sung, with the promising, large-voiced mezzo Ola Rafalo as Fenena and smaller-toned Polynesian tenor Ta’u Pupu’a as the handsome but doltish Ismaele.
Blemishes aside, it was a rousing evening of Verdi, smartly propelled by James Meena’s brisk tempos and the attentive playing by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Huizenga is a freelance writer.