Lyric impresses with imperfect yet invigorating production of “Nabucco”

In a minimalistic yet stunning set, rearing metallic horse statues announce the grand arrival of the Babylonian monarch Nabucco. (Andrew Cioffi/LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO).

By Frances Van de Vel

A lustrous production that dazzled the eye despite uneven vocal performances. That was Lyric Opera of Chicago’s recipe on Feb. 6 for its new-to-Chicago production of Verdi’s biblically inspired “Nabucco.” The opera’s nine-performance run opened at the Civic Opera House on Jan. 23.

Lyric debutant Matthew Ozawa directed this modern production, which both respected the source material and draped it in a modern, stylish garment, seeking contrast in primary colors through a sleek set design and vivid vestments.

Set designer Michael Yeargan turned the scene into a minimalist deep blue palace, with bronze statues of rearing  horses announcing Nabucco’s arrival. In the throne room scene, site of an emotional duet between the Babylonian monarch Nabucco and his daughter Abigaille (actually the child of slaves), the set intensified the drama with an elevated throne and stairs in sharp profile. The blatantly confident Abigaille symbolically stood higher on stage than the despairing Nabucco, who feared for the life of his younger daughter, Fenena.

But the true value of that scene’s staging lay in the exquisite dialogue between lighting and projections, designed by Duane Schuler and Chris Maravich respectively. Abigaille’s domination and radiant confidence were fiercely emphasized under a golden spotlight, while a delirious Nabucco cowered at the bottom of the steps in grim darkness.

When the Babylonian king proclaimed, “above me the sky is crimson raining blood on my head,” before collapsing in a streak of wild madness, the combination of red-clothed attendants and red projections coloring the wall behind them seemed to suggest even the castle itself was weeping bloody tears.

Designer Jane Greenwood’s costumes cleverly translated the discrepancies between the opposed nations: the Jews in stark black and cold white, the attacking Babylonians, led by a sapphire-clad Abigaille, flooded the stage in scarlet.

The cast tried feverishly to provide a vocal match for all this visual splendor, with varying degrees of success.

Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan overshadowed everyone else as Abigaille, the warrior princess with a fiery mane. Throughout her arias, her crystal-clear coloratura effortlessly descended into her warmer, lower register and climbed back into the soprano stratosphere, sometimes even within a single syllable. This vocal flexibility highlighted two contradictory yet crucial aspects of Abigaille’s tragic personality: the vehement determination of her illegitimate quest for the throne and her poignant vulnerability when that burning hope proves futile.

The only noteworthy vocal counterpoint to Serjan’s powerful Abigaille was baritone Željko Lučić’s Nabucco. In one of their duets, “Oh di qual’ onta aggravasi questo mio crin canuto (Oh, what shame must my old head suffer),”  he begged Abigaille with a heartfelt emotion to save Fenena’s life. The Serbian singer’s golden-voiced plea blended eloquently with Serjan’s outraged vocal stabs.

Fenena had little time on stage, yet Elizabeth DeShong’s velvety mezzo-soprano beautifully captured the princess’s kind-hearted character. Her sweet-sounding significant other, Ismaele, sung by Russian tenor Sergei Skorokhodov in his Lyric debut, mellifluously complemented DeShong’s gracious Fenena.

Both roles were smaller than that of the Jewish High Priest Zaccaria,  yet the solemn bass of Dmitry Belosselskiy (another Lyric debutant) sometimes lacked the required potency, occasionally failing to fully reach Zaccaria’s lowest notes.

The chorus, on the other hand, provided one of the evening’s predictable highlights with the captive Jews’ wistful lament, “Va, pensiero sull’ali dorate (Fly, thoughts, on golden wings).” No fewer than 82 people, neatly organized by director Ozawa and dressed in pale robes to match the swirling clouds projected behind them, delivered a powerful performance of that famous chorus. They faithfully explored the delicate, softer passages, and the emphatic, louder sections positively burst with nostalgic desire.

However, this pulsating vigor disappeared as soon as the chorus split between men and women, notably in the Jews’ fear-ridden “Gli arredi festivi giù cadano infranti (Throw down and destroy all festive decorations).” While the men delivered robust sound, the women sounded more pallid.

Whatever the quality of their voices, all the singers were solidly supported by the warm, full-bodied accompaniment of Lyric’s virtuoso orchestra conducted by Carlo Rizzi. The flutes especially caught the ear, with musical strokes that were at times fragile and eerie, then icy as cold steel.

Despite its flaws, “Nabucco” still managed to rivet its audience for just under three hours. The singers populating its stunning set may have differed in vocal quality, yet their forceful ensemble performance was alluring. We were almost disappointed when they let us go.

“Nabucco” ended its run Feb. 12.

Photo at top: In a minimalistic yet stunning set, rearing metallic horse statues announce the grand arrival of the Babylonian monarch Nabucco. (Andrew Cioffi/LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO)